(CNSNews.com) – With the clock running down on an international racism conference in Geneva, news that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to attend will do nothing to allay concerns critics have about the most controversial U.N. gathering in years.
The Iranian government and the U.N. have confirmed that Ahmadinejad, a polarizing figure who has called for Israel’s destruction and described the Holocaust as a myth, will take part in next week’s Durban Review Conference. The announcement prompted renewed calls for democracies to stay away.
On Wednesday, a preparatory committee chaired by Libya began its final session, with the task of approving an outcome document for the conference, commonly known as “Durban II.”
Under negotiation for more than a year, the draft document was drastically altered last month in an attempt to dissuade the U.S. and other wavering Western democracies from joining Israel and Canada in boycotting the event.
But although direct references to Israel and “religious defamation” – among the most contentious issues – were removed, the State Department reaffirmed this week that more needed to be done if the U.S. was to attend.
Crucially, the document still endorses in its entirety the outcome document from the previous racism conference, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. That document, the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA), singled out Israel for censure by identifying “Palestinian people under foreign occupation” as victims of racism.
Pro-Palestinian advocacy groups have increasingly sought to label Israel an “apartheid” state akin to pre-1994 South Africa, a theme that dominated Durban I in 2001 and prompted the U.S. and Israeli delegations to walk out. Israel and its supporters maintain that the long running conflict is not a racial one.
Before its amendment, the Durban II draft text included references to “apartheid Israel” and questioned the validity of a Jewish state, challenging its “law of return,” which allows any Jewish migrating to Israel to become a citizen.
Although U.S. and European objections prompted Durban II organizers to excise direct references to Israel, the text’s endorsement of the DDPA remains a sticking point for the U.S., State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
Also of concern were the surviving references to incitement to religious hatred. He said the U.S. believed that concept “should be narrow and clearly defined and made consistent with human rights obligations ensuring freedom of expression.”
Islamic governments under the umbrella of the Organization of the Islamic Conference argue that what they call “Islamophobia” – a term covering everything from criticism of human rights abuses in Islamic states to counter-terrorism profiling – is a “contemporary form of racism.”
‘Global platform’ for Iranian president
Apart from the U.S., which has not yet closed the door on eventual participation, other countries still considering their options include many in Europe, with Italy and the Netherlands among the most vocal critics.
Overall, the level of governmental participation at Durban II remains uncertain, with a U.N. spokeswoman saying on Tuesday about 35 countries have confirmed they will participate. The U.N. has 192 member states.
Addressing a briefing in Geneva, spokeswoman Marie Heuze named just five countries which had so far confirmed attendance at a top leadership level – Iran, Montenegro, Lesotho, Togo and East Timor.
Heuze said Ahmadinejad planned to give a press conference on Tuesday, the second day of the conference.
Citing Ahmadinejad’s planned attendance and noting that Holocaust Memorial Day this year falls during the Durban II week, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) on Tuesday called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to lead an 11th hour boycott.
“Today’s democratic Germany has a moral obligation and opportunity to lead the walkout against a man who mocks the dead and threatens the living,” said SWC associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper.
Earlier, Anne Bayefsky, editor of the Hudson Institute’s Eye on the U.N. project and an outspoken Durban II critic, said Ahmadinejad would likely use the “global platform” provided by the U.N. to continue his attacks against Israel and Jews.
“Will the European Union, Australia, and the United States sit in their seats at Durban II and listen to the hatemongering and anticipated applause?” she asked.
“Democratic states, having delayed a decision about participation until the final hour, have encouraged Ahmadinejad to believe he has one more opportunity to spread anti-Semitism and demonize the Jewish state. It is long past the deadline for democracies to pull the plug on Durban II and stop legitimizing a racist anti-racism conference.”
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Tuesday the U.S. stance on participation was tied to its concerns about the outcome document and “has nothing to do with whether Ahmadinejad shows up or not.”
Iran’s state-funded Press TV said Tuesday Israel was trying to undermine Durban II “because many nations plan to harshly criticize the Israeli regime for its discriminatory and oppressive policies toward the Palestinians as well as its war crimes during the onslaught on Gaza.”
‘No offensive material allowed’
Much of the controversy surrounding the Durban I conference in 2001 arose from a parallel forum by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Jewish participants were shouted down, anti-Semitic literature circulated and a final document accused Israel of racism and genocide, urging mandatory sanctions.
Some 100 NGOs last year signed a declaration voicing regret for the way the 2001 NGO forum had turned out, citing “racist treatment including violence, exclusion, and intimidation against Jewish participants, and the misuse of human rights terminology in the document related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The signatories pledged to ensure that Durban II did not witness a recurrence.
“The global effort to eradicate racism cannot be advanced by branding whole peoples with a stigma of ultimate evil, fomenting hateful stereotyping in the name of human rights,” they said.
Anxious to avoid a repeat of 2001 and the singling out of Israel, the office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has issued guidelines for organizers of side events planned for Geneva in the coming days.
NGOs are required to submit requests for events, and the conference secretariat in considering the requests will aim to ensure that “a diverse range of themes and issues” are covered.
“The distribution of background material is only allowed in the room where the event takes place and not outside,” the guidelines state. “All material distributed must bear the stamp of the organization sponsoring the event. Offensive materials shall not be permitted.”
The U.N. has no control, however, over activities outside of the official venues, where planned events include a mass demonstration on Saturday and a conference with the theme “United Against Apartheid, Colonialism and Occupation: Dignity and Justice for the Palestinian People.”
SWC international relations director Shimon Samuels this week wrote to the mayor of Geneva, Manuel Tornare, urging him to ensure that planned events do not “deteriorate into a hatefest that abuses the hospitality of both your city and your country.”