Libya, Iran, Cuba Leading Preparations for UN Racism Conference

By Patrick Goodenough | August 23, 2007 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - With Libya at the helm, and Iran, Cuba and Pakistan among the 20 nations participating, a United Nations-convened meeting in Geneva next week will begin to lay the groundwork for a global conference on racism in 2009.

A preparatory bureau set up under the U.N.'s Human Rights Council will "formulate a concrete plan" for the 2009 conference, which aims to review the implementation of a program of action drawn up at the U.N.'s last big racism gathering in 2001 -- the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

That conference, in Durban, South Africa, was characterized by blatant anti-Israel sentiment and attempts to revive an earlier U.N. stance equating Zionism with racism. An associated Non-Governmental Organization Forum was also highly politicized, with Israel again the target.

The Bush administration first sent a low-level delegation, and later recalled it to protest what then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called a singling out of one nation "for censure and abuse."

The final declaration and program of action, hammered out amid acrimonious debate, made reference to "the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation" but did not directly condemn Israel.

In the run-up to the 2001 conference, Asian nations led by Iran inserted into draft documents provocative references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including claims that Israel was a threat to international peace and security and was practicing a "new kind of apartheid."

Critics of that process are concerned that, with countries like Libya and Iran in the driving seat again, the 2009 conference may end up with a similar focus.

They also expect "Islamophobia" to feature strongly, and for Islamic states to attempt to revive efforts to outlaw the "defamation of prophets" -- a push triggered by the Mohammed cartoon controversy.

The preparatory bureau meeting, due to run from Aug. 27-31, will decide on dates, venue, participation and objectives of the 2009 conference, as well as regional initiatives running up to the main event.

According to U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based organization that monitors the world body's activities there, the 20 members of the planning group named by the Human Rights Council are Argentina, Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, Croatia, Cuba, Estonia, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Norway, Russia, Senegal, South Africa and Turkey.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, called the decision to hand the chair of the preparatory body to Libya "obscene," noting that the North African country's government consistently ranks among the most egregious human rights abusers.

Neuer also recalled that Libya in 2002 awarded its Muammar Gadaffi Human Rights Prize to Roger Garaudy, a French communist-turned-Muslim who was convicted in 1998 on charges of denying the Holocaust.

Iran's involvement has also raised eyebrows. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called the massacre of six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust a "myth," and last December hosted a conference on the subject in Tehran.

Anne Bayefsky, editor of the Hudson Institute's "Eye on the U.N." project, described Iran as "the world's most notorious state exponent of anti-Semitism."

"With Iran's election to the bureau, the racists will be the U.N. spokespersons against racism, and the message and mission of the United Nations will have been totally inverted -- again," she said.

Bayefsky, who attended the 2001 conference, said the Durban event "is remembered for its broadcast of anti-Semitism from a global platform under a U.N. banner and with U.N. blessing."

Observers have also noted that of the bodies invited to take part in the planning group's meetings, only two U.N. "special rapporteurs" (or human rights investigators) have been included -- the special rapporteur on racism and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

The U.N. has 37 of these individuals, focusing on a range of subjects such as violence against women, human trafficking, minority issues and freedom of expression.

The limiting of invitations to just the two rapporteurs is an indication, observers like Bayefsky and Neuer believe, that the planners intend to promote the freedom of belief issue over that of freedom of expression.

"In other words, accusations of Islamophobia and objections to the Danish [Mohammed] cartoons will be on the agenda [at the 2009 conference]," Bayefsky predicted. "Freedom of expression will not."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow