Human Rights Activists Heading to Geneva to Discuss World’s Most Pressing Issues

By Patrick Goodenough | April 8, 2009 | 4:53 AM EDT

( – One day before the U.N. hosts its controversial “Durban II” racism conference in Geneva later this month, human rights organizations from around the world are planning a gathering in the Swiss city “to place the most pressing situations on the world agenda.”
With a range of invited speakers including free speech advocates as well as dissidents from communist, Islamic and military-ruled countries, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance, and Democracy aims to explore issues including genocide, women’s rights, racism, freedom of expression, and the universality of human rights.
Among the organizers and participants are groups and individuals that have been critical of attempts by Islamic states to use Durban II to advance a campaign against “defamation of religion” and to target Israel for condemnation by defining its Palestinian policies as racism.
Concerns about those issues being included on the Durban II agenda has prompted some governments, including the U.S., to threaten to stay away.
In a bid to lure them back, Durban II organizers last month excised some of the contentious language from the draft final document, including direct references to Israel and religious defamation.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has voiced hope that the U.S. may yet attend, although critics say the revised version still does not meet the conditions laid out by the U.S. for participation.
In particular, the draft document still endorses in its entirety a document known as the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA), which identified “Palestinian people under foreign occupation” as victims of racism.
The DDPA was drawn up at the last U.N. racism conference, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. That conference and a parallel forum of non-governmental organization (NGOs) singled out Israel for condemnation, and the U.S. and Israel walked out in protest.
Pro-Palestinian NGOs are unhappy about the controversy that has dogged preparations for Durban II, and some have been urging that the Israel references be reinserted into the outcome document text.
Negotiations on the text are continuing at a working group level in Geneva this week, and a final session of the Libya-chaired preparatory committee is scheduled for April 15-17, just days before the April 21-24 conference.
On the weekend before the conference begins, Geneva will also host another gathering, at which anti-Zionist NGOs and individuals will “examine and develop the analysis of Israel’s regime over the Palestinian people as a regime of apartheid, colonialism and occupation.”
That meeting, the “Israel Review Conference,” also aims to advocate for an international boycott of Israel and to “develop mechanisms for making Israel accountable to international law.”
On a Web site promoting the event, organizers decry what they say is “a climate where principled debate about Israel’s policies and practices of racial discrimination are silenced at the U.N.”
Pro-Israel activists also are planning to descend on Geneva during the Durban II week, for a one-day conference and rally which organizers say aims to showcase Israel’s commitment to human rights, multiculturalism, absorption of immigrants and refugees of all colors, and humanitarian work around the world.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow