Are the Palestinians getting a hearing at the UN racism conference?
Although the U.N.’s racism conference in Geneva has been dominated by Middle East politics, Palestinian rights groups say Palestinians have effectively been silenced.On the one hand tough rules by the conference organisers prevented Palestinian NGOs from holding “side events”, they say. On the other hand Monday’s controversial speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, slamming Israel as a “totally racist government” founded “on the pretext of Jewish suffering”, has distracted attention from the issues that actually affect Palestinians.
“One thing that we have noticed in this conference is that there has been a concerted effort to silence the voices of the Palestinian presence and raising the Palestinian issue,” said Wisam Ahmad of Al-Haq, a Ramallah-based advocacy group.
Ahmad says that Ahmadinejad’s speech became the symbol of the conference, as intended by “those that wanted this conference to fail”.
“We as Palestinians want to be heard and it is unfortunate that the press attributes the statements of the president of Iran to all of the Palestinian people,” he said.
Ingrid Jaradat, director of the Badil Resource Center in Bethlehem, agrees.
“We all knew he was going to come, we all knew that the European governments were going to wait until they just hear the key word and then they will all stand up and leave the hall and then the press comes in, they all would write about what he said or did not say and everybody would forget what is really written in the documents and what the conference is really about,” she said.
“From my point of view I do not think that this was helpful for the Palestinian people in general and not for our organisation.”
Diplomatic manoeuvering in the run-up to the conference, known as Durban II, resulted in references to the Palestinian question being dropped from the draft declaration, in an effort to get all U.N. members to take part.
In the event the United States, Israel and half a dozen other countries decided to stay away. European states walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech but most came back for the rest of the conference, which agreed a final declaration on Tuesday.
That document “reaffirms” the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) agreed in 2001, which does refer to Israel and the Palestine territories.
It was that reaffirmation that prompted the United States to stay away this time. The U.S. and Israel walked out of the 2001 meeting following attempts, subsequently dropped, to equate Zionism with racism in the final document.
The 2001 meeting was marred by anti-Semitic demonstrations and activities by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that led Jewish groups to warn that Durban II – the review meeting in Geneva – could be another “hatefest”.
This time conference organisers put strict limits on what NGOs could organise on the sidelines of the meeting. Such side events had to deal with “thematic” questions such as the treatment of immigrants, not individual countries.
As a result Palestinian rights groups found their requests to hold events dealing with Palestine issues were rejected.
(A pro-Israel group did manage to hold an event at the U.N. during the conference, apparently by circumventing the conference organisers and booking a room directly through the U.N. offices.)
Critics of the U.N. human rights process say it spends a disproportionate amount of time on the Israel/Palestine issue.
For example, since its creation three years ago, the U.N. Human Rights Council has devoted five of its 10 special sessions to Israel and its alleged human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon. (One each examined the financial crisis, Congo, the food crisis, Myanmar and Darfur.)
“The real victims of the hijacking of the human rights agenda to focus on Israel are not Israel. Israel is a strong country. It can defend itself, it has articulate spokespeople to defend it,” said civil rights activist and Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz.
“While the people of Rwanda were being murdered the U.N. was debating Israel. While the people of Darfur were being murdered the U.N. was debating Israel. While the people of Cambodia were being murdered the U.N. was debating Israel,” he said.
And Palestinians acknowledge that they have little to show for all the diplomatic focus on their problems. Even though the 2001 document refers to the plight of the Palestinians under occupation, little has changed.
“So far the Durban declaration and programme of action has not really succeeded to bring about any major change or improvement in the situation of the Palestinian people but in fact our situation has very much deteriorated since 2001,” said Jaradat.