IHEU attacked at the UN by the Republic of Benin

  • Date / 23 January 2009

In response to an IHEU statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva highlighting modern-day slavery in Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Niger, Mali and Sudan, the Benin delegation told IHEU to “mind its own business” and a French TV crew was ejected from the meeting. Meanwhile, IHEU was the only NGO to circulate proposed wording in the early days of the Durban II preparatory meeting. Xavier Cornut reports on an extraordinary week at the UN.

From 19 to 23 January 2009, the IHEU delegation in Geneva, headed by Xavier Cornut in the absence of Roy Brown, followed the inter-governmental open-ended session on the negotiations relating to the Durban Review Conference draft outcome, at the Palais des Nations, Geneva.

The team comprising Xavier Cornut and David Cornut worked hard to bring Humanist wording to Durban II. Three briefing notes were prepared before the preparatory meeting. These texts urged delegations to focus on important issues such as Slavery, Discrimination based on Work or Descent and Freedom of Expression.

IHEU was the only NGO to circulate proposed wordings in writing. During the first three crucial days of the meeting, our documents were the only ones available to national representatives. This was a big success: more than 100 copies of each note found their way inside the room during the first three days – ultimately, other NGOs followed IHEU’s example at the end of the week.

Briefing notes were personally handed out to important countries such as the EU presidency (Czech Republic), France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and the European Commission. Echoes of our words were heard in the debates that followed: from Denmark defending Freedom of Expression, referring to our opening quote, to Belgium using our CERD reference to support an amendment on Discrimination based on Work or Descent, IHEU’s work was recognized by representatives from the full spectrum of nations.

Our work was also celebrated by other NGOs including the World Jewish Congress, the Association of World Education and Human Rights Watch and our team held discussions with representatives of many states such as Switzerland, Denmark, Holy See and the Netherlands.

On Wednesday, the IHEU team welcomed Caroline Fourest, the prize-winning French secular author, who had come to Geneva with a TV crew to make a documentary on the Human Rights Council. The filming had been commissioned by ARTE, the celebrated German-French channel. The IHEU team guided the TV crew through the Palais, briefed them on the latest developments, joined them and David Littman of the Association for World Education for dinner and ultimately said a few words on camera about the Human Rights Council. This was an extraordinary way of promoting Humanism to millions of viewers.

However, one incident darkened the experience: on Thursday, during tough negotiations on Freedom of Expression between the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the European Union, things began to look ugly in the working group: Syria claimed that nobody was sure how many people had died in the Holocaust and Iran added that the denial of Holocaust was a right of Freedom of Expression, prompting angry answers from the EU, especially the United Kingdom. Worried that these disturbing pictures could be brought to the public, some African States and the OIC forbade any media to be in the room. So our friends from French TV were expelled by the UN police [!], despite the fact that Caroline Fourest had obtained full media accreditation for the two days. This unexplainable attitude is now on tape, and will come back to haunt the Council for months to come. The ARTE programme will be shown in April during Durban II. A special set will be built in Geneva and the programme will feature a debate between the famous intellectuals Robert Badinter and Stéphane Hessel. It is another big achievement for IHEU to be a part of this documentary.

Finally, our success disturbed some of the delegations. Our briefing note on Slavery and Slave Trade urged the working group to add direct references to modern-day slavery in Africa and the Arab world, concepts dramatically absent from the Durban draft. This provoked unexpected fury from the delegation of an African state, the Republic of Benin, which addressed the chairman of the working group during the session concerning our briefing note. Furthermore, the Republic of Benin issued an official denial in an apparent attempt to intimidate IHEU.

Below is the translated version of the text issued by the Embassy of Benin to Switzerland. Scroll down to look at our (now famous) IHEU note on Slavery and Slave Trade.

The voice of IHEU voice was heard all over the UN this week. We were very satisfied to watch Western nations defending our issues at the meeting, reaffirming that Humanism, more than ever, deserves its place in the world.

Xavier Cornut
David Cornut


1. Declaration to the Republic of Benin in response of IHEU briefing note on Slavery and Slave Trade, 22 January 2009

2. Briefing note issued by the IHEU delegation at the United Nations, Geneva, on Slavery and Slave Trade, 19 January 2009

1. Inter-governmental open-ended working group on the Durban Review Conference draft outcome.

Declaration of the Republic of Benin

Document published by the ambassador of the Republic of Benin to the UN and introduced by a speech to the assembly on 22 January, 2009.

Original document published in French, translated into English by Xavier Cornut, IHEU representative to the UN.

Geneva, 22 January 2009

A Non-Governmental Organisation “International Humanist and Ethical Union” based in London[,] Great Britain[,] in a declaration made on 20 January 2009, affirms without any formal evidence that Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Niger and Mali would still practice modern forms of slavery and human trafficking.

The speaker [sic] relates to Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, quote: “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and slave trade shall be prohibited”[,] end quote.

Very well, but beyond the insult that such words, and the evocation of this painful past by citizens of States lacking to recognize this phenomena as a crime against humanity, represent to descents of slaves and Africans as a whole, this neo-slavery of the XXIst century is not in the order of the day of the ongoing process.

This clumsy sermon falls flat in the process of the Durban Review Conference [whose first edition] celebrated the end of apartheid in South Africa in 2001. One should remember that apartheid created in 1948 by the National Party was only put to an end on 30 July, 1991.

The delegation of the Republic of Benin to this preparatory committee would simply advise those with short memory, those who, voluntarily, focus on painful questions engaging directly or indirectly their own responsibilities [or those] choosing the posture of preachers, to mind their own business [and deal] with actual crimes committed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza or anywhere in the world. [These situations are] modern replicas of transatlantic slavery [bringing] today’s humanitarian [laws] many centuries backwards.

Finally, concerning the marginal phenomena of trans-border transfer of children, consequence of cynical trafficking plans which brought the continent into poverty[,] the authorities of our different countries have taken the adequate measures of containment by signing bilateral and multilateral treaties in order to bring [this phenomena] to an end. Stop then to the easy provocation which has no place here.

Thank you for your attention.

2. Inter-governmental open-ended working group on the Durban Review Conference draft outcome.

Briefing note to the delegates, published by Xavier Cornut and David Cornut, IHEU representatives to the UN Geneva. All the documents included an analysis of the existing paragraphs of the DDPA related to the subject.


Durban Review Conference: Briefing Note 2009/HRC/003

Slavery and Slave Trade

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 4.

According to Anti-Slavery International, 27 million people are victims of slavery and slave trade today. Human trafficking in Africa was officially banned in the 1880s, but forced labour is still endemic in the western and central areas of the continent. Each year, more than 200’000 children, as young as five years old, are sold into slavery in Central Africa alone.

In the Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Niger or Mali, human trafficking is also a common and alarming phenomenon. Slaves are held in physical bondage and traded for as little as US $15. The practice is still a part of allowed customs. In Sudan, Arab militias consider it a traditional right to own chattel slaves (persons owned as personal property).

In the draft outcome document of the Durban Review Conference A/CONF.211/PC/WG.2/CRP.2, the existence of hundreds of thousands of modern-day slaves across Africa and the Arab world is totally ignored. The paragraphs of the CERD on the issue note that chattel slavery was a historical crime against humanity which must be remembered. However, the modern-world slavery, which has taken different forms, such as bonded labour and trafficking in women and children, remains dramatically absent from the draft. We believe that it is vital that the DRC outcome document refers explicitly to contemporary slavery in Africa and the Arab world, and that it urges states to take active steps to work towards its total elimination.

A paragraph to this effect could be included within section 1 of the document covering Slave trade, traditional forms of slavery, colonialism, historic injustices, remembering past tragedies, apologies.

May we respectfully suggest that the following wording might be appropriate:

Recalling the article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we call upon all States where human trafficking and slave trade still exist, especially in Africa and in the Arab world, to introduce legislation to outlaw this practice and to undertake national and local programs aimed at the elimination of modern-day slavery.

For further information on this issue, please contact:
Roy W Brown, IHEU Main Representative, UN Geneva.
Xavier Cornut, IHEU Representative, UN Geneva

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