Anja Niedringhaus/AP
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, attends the Human Rights Council's 60th
anniversary Commemorative session in December.

UN Racism Conference Alters Agenda After Threatened Multi-Nation Boycott

March 18, 2009 12:29 PM
by Rachel Balik
After accusations of an anti-Israel bias, the UN Human Rights Council has made significant changes to a draft resolution for the upcoming World Conference on Racism.

Fearing Boycott, UN Agrees to Change Conference Agenda

Amid charges of anti-Semitism and “Israel bashing,” the Human Rights Council has been pressured to jettison a 60-page document outlining the agenda for the April World Conference on Racism. Working group chairman Yuri Boychenko has drafted a new 17-page document that eliminates controversial references to the Middle East. Highly contentious statements that labeled critiques of religious faith racist and a violation of human rights have also been removed, a source told Reuters. The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, angered by anti-Muslim cartoons and films, had supported those statements. According to Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, the organization was “also pushing to equate Zionism with racism and banning the possibility of anyone to change his or her religion.”

In the days preceding the changes, the entire EU voiced dissatisfaction with the agenda set. The United States, Israel and Canada demanded changes in the document, arguing that it attacked Israel while failing to scrutinize the actions of various Islamic countries in the region. Israel is the only country within the document accused of racism. Israel, Canada, Italy and Australia plan to boycott, and the 27-country EU block has considering doing the same.

EU member nations Germany and the Netherlands have been vocal in their objections to the previous document. German journalists and officials expressed concern that the 60-page document is explicitly anti-Semitic. In the entire 60-page document, Israel is the only state criticized for racism.

All the countries expressing their opposition, including the United States, said they would only attend the conference if significant alterations were made to the document.

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Background: Nations Rally in Boycott of Apparently Anti-Semitic Document

The United States and Israel both walked out of the 2001 conference for exactly the same reason: the implication that Zionism was a form of racism. Other countries also expressed dissatisfaction with attempts to resolve conflict in the Middle East. Arguments ended the conference before successful votes were completed on a number of issues. At the time, the BBC reported that the conference may have done “more harm than good.”

The U.S. State Department announced its intent to boycott the 2009 conference in late February 2009. Delegates had traveled to Geneva in mid-February to review the agenda for the conference and begin negotiations but The Washington Post reported that both the United States and Israel felt that the current document was “unsalvageable,” and contained the same anti-Israel bias expressed during the 2001 conference. The United States also saw the attempt to equate religious critiques with racism as a restriction of free speech. The Obama administration decided to withdraw from negotiations completely, stating that America would not participate in a conversation about the document until vast alterations were made by the Human Rights Council. The Council urged for continued collaboration, to no avail.

Reference: UN Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is a UN organization formed in 2006; it comprises 47 nations responsible for promoting and strengthening human rights around the globe.

The Council is responsible for organizing the impending conference, the Durban Review Conference, in an attempt to revisit the unresolved issues from the 2001 conference. As stated on the United Nations' Web site, the goal is to reaffirm a commitment to the policies that were proposed but not carried out, at the 2001 World Conference.

Information about the first UN Conference on Racism can be found on the conference’s official site. The issues page includes documents describing topics discussed. There is a focus on the rights of women, indigenous people and ethnic minorities.

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