Durban II – a new battlefront opens

  • Date / 8 October 2008

The second preparatory committee meeting to plan for the 2009 Durban Review Conference on Racism opened this week in Geneva. There to report on progress was IHEU main representative at the UN in Geneva, Roy Brown.

The Durban Conference on racism held in 2001 was disappointing on several levels. Not only did the conference degenerate into an anti-Israel jamboree, identifying Zionism as racism and leading to a walkout by the American and Israeli delegations, but it failed to address serious issues of discrimination in many parts of the developing world. Perhaps the only bright spot in the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA) was the recognition that untouchability based on caste (or in UN parlance, discrimination based on work or descent) was a form of racism; a decision still not accepted by the government of India.

The decision to hold a conference to review progress on the DDPA was taken by the UN in 2006, following which two regional preparatory conferences were held in Nigeria and Brazil. The outcomes of these preparatory meetings did not augur well for the Review Conference, now planned for April 2009, in Geneva. The United States, Canada and Israel, seeing little change in prospect have decided to boycott the Review Conference (the DRC). Other states, including Denmark, are reviewing their options.

The problem for the DRC is, in a nutshell, that following a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in December 2006 there can be no renegotiation of the existing agreements contained in the DDPA and all of the decisions taken at the Durban Conference will stand. However, the draft outcome document for the DRC (or Durban II) will “identify concrete measures and initiatives for combating and eliminating all manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) representing the 57 Islamic States, once again have freedom of expression in their sights.

It has become a mantra since the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993 that there can be no hierarchy among human rights, and that all rights are interrelated and interdependent. Nevertheless the liberal democracies have always recognized that freedom of expression plays a key role in the protection of all our other rights, and in our ability to identify and expose abuse. The repeated attacks on freedom of expression by the OIC – few of whom are democracies and many of whom are quite repressive regimes – are themselves evidence that these States too recognize the overriding importance of freedom of expression. Not only is freedom expression used in the West to criticize Islam (not racism, as they claim, but a human right) but it is used to expose the appalling level of State-sponsored human rights abuse prevalent in many of their own countries.

The recent success of the OIC in having both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly adopt resolutions “combating defamation of religion” means that even though the General Assembly resolution was non-binding, states who wish to do so now have international approval to enact new laws against defamation of religion (blasphemy laws to you and me) and to keep existing blasphemy laws in place.

Following these successes the Islamic States have opened two new battlefronts. We hear from colleagues close to the source that one of the OIC’s leading strategists has suggested a shift of focus from defamation of religion (now that that battle has been won internationally) towards incitement to religious hatred. The OIC is now pushing for new measured to combat “Islamophobia” – a catch-all accusation against anyone who dares criticize any aspect of Islam by equating them with hate-mongers. The OIC sponsored an expert seminar just last week in Geneva to review the need for new limits to freedom of expression following “the new wave of anti-Muslim sentiment” since 9/11. At that meeting several OIC delegates highlighted the lack of a level playing field in Europe, where Holocaust denial has become a criminal offence, yet insulting the prophet of Islam can go unpunished, and where “freedom of expression has become instrumentalised” to incite hatred of Muslims.

The second battlefront is the Durban Review Conference. The absence of several key delegations from the DRC makes it all the more likely that the OIC and its allies will succeed in their attempts to have the conference adopt resolutions on new “concrete measures” to combat racism “including Islamophobia”, such as imposing further limits on freedom of expression.

The Algerian delegate speaking this week at the DRC preparatory committee called for the final document from the conference to “integrate into its field of action new forms of racism such as Islamophobia, racial profiling, and discrimination targeted at migrants”.

Some countries, however, have finally woken up to the threat. France, speaking on behalf of the European Union, pointed out that “no region of the world is free of the scourge of racism”, and that it is vital to preserve the consensus achieved in Durban – a clear warning to states not to go it alone by pushing for new measures targeting the West – “and not to spoil this opportunity by seeking to restrain freedom of expression or other fundamental rights”.

It is an open question whether the West will be able to successfully defend freedom of expression. Whatever the outcome, the war will clearly continue.

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