Article publié dans Human Rights Tribune Geneva -Info Sud

1 March 08 - Arab and African nations are seeking to redefine racism to include new forms of discrimination such as defamation of religion. Western nations are threatening to boycott the 2009 World Conference Against Racism, known as Durban II, if the issue of Islamophobia is included on the agenda.Pamela Taylor/InfoSud

– The next conference on racism, whether held in Geneva or Durban, South Africa, may already have its first casualty. Louise Arbour, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has come under fire in the conservative Canadian press for having appeared to support a pan-Arab charter that called for the elimination of Zionism although she later reversed this impression. But that did not satisfy conservative Members of Parliament who are calling for her to step down as chair of Durban II.

Canada announced on January 24 that it will boycott the 2009 conference on the grounds it would likely “degenerate into expressions of intolerance and anti-Semitism.” Israel followed suit in February saying it would also boycott unless “it is proven that the conference will not be used as a platform for further anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic behaviour.”

So far the US is sitting on the fence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate hearing on February 13 that the US has “not tried to make a final decision on this.” In this vacuum it has been left up to the EU to resist pressure from Muslim countries to include Islamophobia on the agenda for Durban II.

In mid-February, Mohammed Bessedik, from the Algerian mission to the UN in Geneva, told a preparatory meeting for the 2009 conference on racism that defamation of Islam is a new form of racial discrimination “similar to the one that targeted another Semitic people in the 20th century.”

“Since September 11, 2001, we have noticed a policy of anti-Semitism directed against Arabs,” in particular Muslims, said Bessedik.

He and many Arab countries have long insisted they are not anti-Semitic but rather anti-Zionist since they are also a Semitic people. Their target, they say, is Israel’s Zionist policy of occupying Arab land in Palestine.

The question of whether either Zionism or Islamaphobia qualify as racial issues has become so polemical that the future of Durban II hangs in the balance. In 2001, the United States and Israel famously walked out of Durban I to protest Arab-led verbal attacks on Israel.

Jean Pascal Obembo of ARIS (Anti Racist Information Service) in Geneva, called the preparatory meetings for Durban II, “a tennis match between Egypt and Belgium.” Egypt is the new leader of the African and Muslim bloc at the Human Rights Council while Belgium, holding the EU chair, speaks for Western nations.

Last September, Chile’s representative resigned as president of the follow-up working group on Durban II over the issue of Islamophobia. Since then the bloc of African and Muslim countries has managed to get the wording “assessing contemporary manifestations of racism” (such as defamation of religion), inserted into the Durban II preparatory document.

Western countries are not happy about this and fear it will dilute the overarching issue of racism. They say that issues such as religious defamation are already covered by other UN declarations.

Obembo, who is from Congo Brazzaville, said Egypt is pushing religion into the debate on racism, “but it’s only one religion they are talking about.” African nations are going along, he said, despite their own very real problems with racism, in order “to divert attention from the fact there is no anti-racist legislation in a single African country.”

Anhthu Duong, the Third Secretary at the Swiss Mission to the UN, believes a lot was accomplished at the first Durban conference and that the purpose of Durban II is to implement those issues, not to introduce new ones. Israel and the US walked out of Durban I, she said, “over discussions outside the conference, not the document itself which was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel.”

The question now, she said, “is whether African and Islamic countries are ready to trigger a wholesale withdrawal of Western countries by insisting on a discussion of Islamaphobia”. She is not optimistic about the final preparatory meeting in April because “both sides have hardened their positions, making consensus very difficult.”

Switzerland, like most European countries, has not yet made a decision on participation. However, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a speech to France’s Jewish community on February 14, reminded that France will chair the EU in the months preceding Durban II and that, “if our legitimate demands are not taken into account, we will disengage from the process.”

Even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are hedging their bets. Peter Splinter of Amnesty International said the talks on Durban 2009 have become as politicized as the Human Rights Council itself. “If this is the type of conference that governments want then we would be loathe to participate.”