Human rights do matter

Will the principles of human rights be upheld at the 2009 Durban conference?

durban anti-israel 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
durban anti-israel 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
December 10th marked the commemoration of International Human Rights Day - a celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by members of the United Nations in 1948. So now is a good time to take stock of how institutions that are the beneficiaries of our tax and philanthropic largesse, promote human rights. Start with the UN Human Rights Council which is propped up by the tax-payers of each and every UN member state. Three weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Council was given a stamp of approval by the General Assembly to convene a conference in 2009 modeled after the 2001 Durban "World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance." Although the conference in 2001 was meant to focus on substantive issues pertaining to discrimination and racism, it degenerated into an abomination of diplomacy. Led in large part by the conference's parallel NGO Forum consisting of 3,900 NGOs, the focus on human rights was exchanged for an exercise in anti-Israel vitriol. Condemnations of state-sponsored discrimination in Burma and North Korea were replaced with a document that labeled Israel an apartheid state. Colin Powell, then US secretary of state announced the US delegation's withdrawal from the conference saying, "I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of 'Zionism equals racism.'" The hi-jacking of the conference prevented minority groups from articulating real concerns regarding discrimination. Indigenous communities from Peru, Thailand, and Sudan, among others, were left voiceless. We must not allow Durban II, (a host city has yet to be named) to take our money and muzzle those committed to a real dialogue on discrimination. Predicting whether the principles of human rights will be upheld at Durban II requires knowledge of who will be calling the shots. The focus of the 2009 conference will largely be determined by the Organization of Islamic States given their disproportional representation on the Human Rights Council. In this regard, anything the OIC believes to be a "contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance," will top the agenda. Pakistani representatives said Islamophobia should receive special attention "to fight against racial profiling in the name of the fight against terrorism." Libya, which was elected chair of the preparatory committee this past August, along with Cuba and Iran, the committee's rapporteur and executive member respectively, will also have a major influence. NOTWITHSTANDING the abysmal human rights records of these countries, there is some scope for averting another Durban fiasco - governments (i.e. the public via tax revenues) and foundations are funding these activities and public pressure could influence the agenda for Durban II. The following are three steps that can be taken to ensure that our funds are used in ways that genuinely reflect the principles of human rights. Firstly, individuals should exert pressure on the foundations and NGOs, to which they donate. Donors must ask for commitments that neither the foundation, nor the NGOs they fund will participate in a conference if it degenerates into an assault on human rights. These include large-scale American foundations such as the Ford Foundation, which provided extensive funds to Durban I NGO participants. Foundations and NGOs need to be held accountable for how they spend our money. Secondly, human rights defenders should pressure their governments to vote against the Durban II financing plan taking place within the next three weeks. According to Eye on the UN, a New York-based watchdog group, the costs of Durban II will be slightly lower than $7.2 million. Contributors to US presidential campaigns can also play a role. Candidates should be asked to withhold UN dues in proportion to the amount spent on facilitating another anti-human rights conference. If the leaders of the Human Rights Council want another Durban I, they can use their own money-not ours. Thirdly, supporters of Israel should build coalitions with international groups that were sidelined during the first Durban conference. Averting a second Durban debacle is not an Israel issue. Building relationships with other groups committed to global human rights is a critical step in exposing the hypocrisy of the UN Human Rights Council. If it becomes clear that a second Durban is in the works, these coalitions, along with the United States, Israel and other UN member states can organize a parallel conference. Funds that would have gone to Durban II participants can be used to support a real human rights conference. We shouldn't relegate thinking about human rights to one day in December or even the entire month. All year long we should evaluate how foundations, NGOs and governments protect the principles of human rights. A repeat of Durban 2001 is not unavoidable. A proactive approach combining financial pressure and coalition-building can serve as the best way of averting another stain to the UN's record on human rights. The writer is the coordinator of government affairs of NGO Monitor.