(CNSNews.com) – African nations preparing for a major United Nations racism conference next year want Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians on the agenda, but not the conflict in Darfur, Sudan.
The focus on Israel will reaffirm the concerns of critics who are urging Western governments to boycott the conference.
A leading African legal scholar said Thursday that Darfur should not only feature at the conference planned for April 20-24 in Geneva, but should top the agenda if the event is not to be “a joke.”
The Geneva gathering aims to review actions taken as a result of the landmark World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.
The WCAR and a parallel forum of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were mired in controversy over attempts to brand Israel as a racist state and demands for reparations for slavery, and saw both the United States and Israel withdraw in protest.
Canada and Israel have already indicated that they will stay away from the 2009 event, which critics have dubbed “Durban II,” and some European countries, Britain and France among them, are considering their options.
The U.S. government has not yet announced a final decision, but has refused to participate in or fund a preparatory process, which includes regional conferences like one by Nigeria this week.
Attended by government officials and NGO observers from more than 20 African nations, the three-day meeting in Abuja ended with the adoption of a declaration. Along with similar texts from other regional meetings, it will be used to draw up the “outcome document” for the 2009 conference.
The African declaration, almost 6,000 words long, makes reference to only one specific country situation anywhere in the world, reiterating “concern about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupations.”
The crisis in Darfur does not get a mention. The U.N. says up to 300,000 lives have been lost in the western Sudanese region since fighting erupted between government-backed Arab Janjaweed militias and ethnic African rebel groups in 2003.
“Why is a non-African situation mentioned in a declaration about Africa, one that references neither Sudan’s racist killings, nor any other country in Africa?” asked Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based NGO, U.N. Watch.
“Portraying Israel’s conflict as racial is more than political mischief,” Neuer said in a statement. “It’s an attempt to dehumanize Israelis and their supporters as uniquely evil.”
“The obvious result of mentioning only the Palestinians as victims of racism is to demonize the Jewish state,” said Anne Bayefsky, senior editor of Eye on the U.N., a project of the Hudson Institute.
“The Abuja Declaration indicates that continued participation by democratic nations in the Durban II process sends precisely the wrong signals to rights-abusing states and their victims,” she said.
Reuters quoted a U.N. official, Ibrahim Wani, as saying that Israel’s interests were not “badly damaged,” since “it is only one paragraph that mentions the Palestinians.”
‘Race is the defining issue’
Prof. Makau Mutua, Dean of the Buffalo Law School and director of the Human Rights Center at the State University of New York, said Thursday that that “unless the meeting [in Geneva] is a joke, it has to place Darfur at the top of its agenda.”
“There is no other more pressing race issue in Africa than Darfur,” said Mutua, a Kenyan. “What could be more horrendous than genocide?”
Asked whether he was surprised that Darfur was ignored in the text adopted in Abuja, Mutua said African nations “have shown absolutely no spine” in confronting the issue.
“This problem has historical dimensions where black Africans have borne the brunt of Arab expansionism and slavery,” he said.
The now-defunct Organization of African Unity “failed to address this historical problem, and sadly, the [successor African Union] has followed suit.”
The A.U. has opposed an International Criminal Court prosecutor’s request for Bashir to be indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity, condemning what it called “the misuse of indictments against African leaders.”
“How can Africans expect outsiders to tackle the issue of Darfur if they themselves are too cowardly to address it?” Mutua asked.
During the meeting in Abuja, a U.N. Watch representative delivered a speech in which atrocities in Darfur were addressed.
“Sudan immediately interrupted with an objection – supported by Algeria and Morocco – and Chairman Martin Uhomoibhi of Nigeria ruled that country situations could not be mentioned,” Neuer reported.
Some have disputed that the Darfur conflict is a racial one, pointing to the fact that while Arabic speaking, many Janjaweed militiamen are black. Juan Cole, left-wing Middle East professor at the University of Michigan, has written that the Arab versus African argument is promoted by “rightwing Zionists” who want to racialize the conflict for political reasons.
But the Janjaweed itself has promoted the Arab vs. African angle. An Amnesty International report published in 2004 cited a song sung by militia-supporting women that said, “the power of [Sudanese president Omar] al-Bashir belongs to the Arabs and we will kill you until the end, you blacks, we have killed your God.”
(Some experts argue that, however the race issue may appear to Western eyes, what is relevant is how the protagonists view each other; to outsiders, Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus may look alike but few dispute that attempted genocide occurred there during the 1990s.)
Mutua said there was no doubt that “race in the context of the struggle for resources and power is the defining issue in the genocide” in Darfur.
“The more than 300,000 killed and three million Darfurians who have been displaced are black,” he said. “There is no other rational explanation for the pogroms against them except their race.”
'Islamophobia,' free speech and counter-terrorism
Other concerns arising from the declaration adopted in Abuja include references – six times in the text – to “incitement to religious hatred” and the need for countries to take legal and other steps against it.
The document “calls upon States to avoid inflexibly clinging to free speech in defiance of the sensitivities existing in a society and with absolute disregard for religious feelings.”
The Organization of the Islamic Conference, a bloc of Muslim states, is leading a campaign at the U.N. to have what it calls the defamation of Islam outlawed, and “Islamophobia” is expected to feature prominently at the Geneva conference.
Neuer said the language in the Abuja text “goes far beyond the recognized norms for balancing prohibitions of racial hatred with respect for free speech, which is the lifeblood of democracy.”
“If the right to express one’s beliefs … is to be restricted by the ‘feelings’ and ‘sensitivities’ of others, this will mark the end of free speech as we know it.”
Elsewhere, the Abuja declaration “draws attention to the impact of counter-terrorism measures on the rise of racism … including the practice of racial, ethnic, national and religious profiling.”
Bayefsky of Eye on the U.N. said this was an attempt to stifle efforts to combat terrorism.
“The United Nations, which still cannot manage to define terrorism, has instead focused on placing roadblocks in the way of counter terrorism measures,” she said. “Charging counter terrorism activities with racism is a favorite.”