Pro- and anti-Israel forces square off in Geneva

NGO address equating Zionism with racism goes uninterrupted.

anne bayefsky 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
anne bayefsky 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
A speech equating Zionism with racism, made by the non-governmental group Europe Third World Center, was heard without interruptions on the floor of the United Nations anti-racism conference in Geneva on Thursday. But moderators halted activist Anne Bayefsky, who heads Eye on the UN, when she referred to the gathering by its nickname, "Durban II," during her speech. The moderators explained to her that this was not the proper title of the week-long conference, and asked her to refrain from using it in the rest of her remarks. For four days, non-governmental groups and representatives from 183 countries have attended the main gathering and held side events dedicated to the issue of racism and human rights. Here, as one walks the halls, one can see and hear discussions on a host of issues such as AIDS, poverty and gay rights, to name just a few. At the end of the day Thursday, the conference released a statement about the importance of labeling the 1994 massacres of the Tutsi in Rwanda as genocide. But winding its way through what should otherwise have been a laudable conference was a battle between pro- and anti-Israel forces, which reared its head both in the official plenum and in the side conferences both inside and outside the building throughout the week. Israel and eight other countries, including the US, boycotted the event to protest the fact that the final outcome document, which had already been approved, solely singled out Israel and its political conflict with the Palestinians and placed it within a document about racism. These countries also had concerns about clauses in the document regarding free speech. Debates over his speech, as well as over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, continued on Thursday and are expected to be heard on Friday, the last day of the 2009 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Upset by Ahmadinejad's speech, Denmark told the formal assembly Thursday that "it was a deeply worrying paradox that this rostrum is being abused to advocate racism and intolerance. I am referring to the intervention by the president of Iran on Monday. "We could choose to stay silent. But the remarks relating in particular to Israel were so abominable that we must react. The intervention must be understood as incitement to hatred," Denmark said. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, spoke of the "racist separation wall" and said that "Christian and Muslim Palestinians were being prevented from exercising their right to freedom of worship and access to holy places in Jerusalem." The Czech Republic left the conference on the first day, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the eradication of Zionism in his Monday remarks. In a side panel on Islamophobia that dealt in large part with anti-Muslim prejudice, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the bulk of the listeners made short speeches and asked questions about Israel. Wearing a pro-Palestinian button on his black coat, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta International said that neither Zionism nor the State of Israel was "Jewish." Gh. R. Khazji of Iran said that being Jewish was not the same thing as being Zionist, and he wanted to know why the Zionists wanted to build a wall between Muslims and Jews. Almost at the same time, upstairs, the 120 non-governmental groups that were registered for the conference began their speeches to the assembly. Europe Third World Center said that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination" and called for sanctions to be issued against Israel. That speech went uninterrupted, as did one by another NGO against Israel's actions in Gaza and its continued settlement construction. But when UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer spoke about the torture of Iranian dissident Ahmed Batebi, Iran asked the moderators to instruct him to stick to the agenda item, which was the objective of the conference. Iran itself spoke toward the end of the day Thursday to protest the continued objections to its president's speech Monday. "It was a genuine attempt to shed light on historical facts and realities" regarding an "illegitimate regime" and the "massacres and atrocities" it had committed, Iran said. During its three weeks of military action in Gaza, this occupying power "committed crimes against humanity," said Iran. Although it did not refer to Israel by name, it accused it of using unconventional weapons to execute unarmed women and children. On Wednesday, Iran sent a letter of protest to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for criticizing Ahmadinejad's speech. The Iranian president "was subjected to unfair and unwarranted harsh criticism," Iran's ambassador to the UN in New York, Muhammad Khazaee, said in the letter. Ban said Monday that he deplored "the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite. This is the opposite of what this conference seeks to achieve." Iran's ambassador noted that tolerance and freedom of expression were among the basic principles of the world racism conference. "It is unacceptable, and indeed regrettable, that these very principles were utterly disregarded in the same conference where we witnessed a manifestation of intolerance by some," he said. Khazaee said the UN secretary-general should be impartial and fair, adding that the majority of UN member states were concerned about the plight of the Palestinians caused by Israel's policies and practices. The UN Office in Geneva was unable to comment on the letter early Thursday because it had not received it. But it did expel three groups from the conference Thursday for unacceptable behavior related to Ahmadinejad's opening speech. The groups that had their passes withdrawn were the French Union of Jewish Students; Coexist, a related French-based organization that fights racism and anti-Semitism; and the Teheran-based Neda Institute for Political and Scientific Research, said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN high commissioner for human rights. He told reporters that members of the first group had been involved Monday in disrupting Ahmadinejad's speech. He did not elaborate, but during the speech, a pair of rainbow-wigged protesters threw clown noses at Ahmadinejad, while others shouted, "You are a racist!" and "Shame! Shame!" from the gallery. Iranian spectators also cheered loudly. Later, about 100 members of pro-Israel and Jewish groups tried to block Ahmadinejad's entrance to a news conference. The Neda Institute from Iran distributed inflammatory material to meeting participants, Colville said. All together, 64 badges of representatives of the three NGOs were revoked, he said. On Tuesday, UN officials announced that the badges of some members of these groups had been withdrawn. But "after examining the types of conduct, and patterns of conduct, as well as the risk of possible disruptive behavior during the remainder of the conference, the high commissioner has issued an instruction that the badges of all the participants of three NGOs be removed," Colville said. The move ended the groups' participation in the conference. AP contributed to this report.