UN Watch hosts conference to spotlight victims’ voices

Across town from Place des Nations, another conference was held yesterday morning in parallel with the U.N. Durban Review Conference to truly spotlight the voices of victims of racism and discrimination. Sponsored by UN Watch and other NGOs, the “Conference Against Racism, Discrimination and Persecution,” featured a diverse set of expert panelists who raised issues of genocide, state-sanctioned persecution, the rights of women and homosexuals, and anti-Semitism.

In his opening remarks, Harold Tanner, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he “wishes the U.N. would truly focus on racism as we will this morning.”

First to speak was Father Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest who has made it his life’s work to uncover and document the murders of 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine and Belarus during the Holocaust. He raised the concern that eyewitnesses of the Holocaust are disappearing, while the negationists are growing.

Father Desbois shared the stories recounted to him during his investigations in Eastern European villages by witnesses of the horrific events. One such story involved a man who told Father Desbois that his home was originally occupied by Jews. Years ago, after the Jewish owners were killed, including a baby, he buried them in the garden before claiming their property.

Father Desbois said that all forms of anti-Semitism share a common element– whether it is left-wing anti-Semitism that accuses Jews of being capitalists and controlling world resources or Christian-based anti-Semitism that accuses Jews of bringing the evils of the world. Left, right, and Islamist anti-Semitism have a common point: they want Jews to leave from wherever they are. The same is true of many of the attacks on Israel, he said. Worse, such attacks serve to scapegoat Israel, deflecting attention from the abuses of other countries.

British MP Denis MacShane, UK Minister of State for Europe said that anti-Semitism is pervausive and has reached the level of mainstream politics. He expressed his concern that anti-Semitic, fascist parties might gain seats in the European Parliament. He recommended new restrictions on the Islamist extremism of internet sites and more efforts to combat the export of anti-Semitism by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Minister MacShane commended UN Watch and Jewish students for preventing Durban II from being hijacked by Jew-hatred, but stressed that the U.N. should not be treated with contempt, because “there’s no other game in town.” He then advocated addressing issues of concern to Muslim communities and working with them to expose anti-Semitism. Such a policy does not imply that anyone has any “right not to be offended,” he said (referring implicitly to the Islamist call to ban speech critical of Islam).

Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice, said it is “unspeakable” that genocides are still happening in the 21st century. He condemned “state-sanctioned hate cultures, the epicenter of which is Ahmadinejad’s Iran.” He went on to decry the laundering of anti-Semitism under the cover of anti-racism by indicting Israel with apartheid and Nazism. “The problem is not putting Israel above the law, but that Israel is systemically denied equality before the law,” he said. He noted the problematic comparisons of Israelis to Nazis during the Gaza conflict, pointing out that Hamas is a terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction. Such “false parallels are an affront to the living survivors and deceased” of the Holocaust, he said. He complained that the U.N. Human Rights Council has condemned Israel in 26 out of 32 country-specific resolutions, while ignoring the world’s worst violators.

Next to speak, Dounia Ettaib, President of the Association for Arab Women of Italy, highlighted the plight of women in the Muslim World, and throughout the developing world in general. She spoke of the denial of basic rights and equality, the practice of polygamy, and the prevalence of honor killings. She said that many of the anti-female traditions of the Muslim World are not actually based in Islam, noting the powerful women of the Koran.

Activist Louis George Tin, founder of the International Day Against Homophobia, deplored the removal of homophobia from the Durban II agenda. He spoke of the plight of homosexuals throughout the world, highlighting cases from Uganda and Iran where homosexuality is a criminal, sometimes capital, offense. “There was a time when black and white people couldn’t marry,” he said, drawing a parallel with prohibitions on gay marriage. “Everyone should live freely.”

Next to speak, French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy decried the “masquerade” of Durban II. He said that many people came naively to the Durban Review Conference, hoping to place their cause on the agenda e.g. the “untouchables” of India, those concerned about modern slavery, victims of the genocide in Darfur. But, as long as they were not Israeli or Palestinian, no one was interested in them. He called for “urgent reform” of the Human Rights Council to ensure that the world’s worst violators are denied membership. He also encouraged preparations for “Geneva III,” a conference to truly give a voice to victims of discrimination. The close of Henri-Levy’s speech was marked by a lengthy standing ovation.

President of “Stop Child Executions” and former Miss Canada, Nazanin Afshin-Jam spoke against the execution of minors, especially in Iran where this is most prevalent. She also shared her personal story, fleeing Iran for Canada after her father was sentenced to death for serving alcohol and playing music at his hotel. Miraculously, her father was also able to escape when his executioner had a car accident before carrying out the execution.

Nazanin highlighted the case of a Kurdish girl, also named Nazanin, who was sentenced to death by the Iranian government at age 17 for defending herself against rapists, killing one of them. Had she allowed the rape to take place, she could have been sentenced to lashes for defying chastity laws, or worse, sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. This was the case that inspired Afshin-Jam to become an activist against child executions. She succeeded in gathering 350,000 signatures to save Nazanin through an internet campaign. Due to the media and diplomatic pressure, Iran decided to stay her execution, instead demanding she pay a heavy fine in “blood money” to the rapist’s family. Afshin-Jam encouraged the audience to sign the petition on her website to stop child executions. It is through this pressure that lives are saved, she said.

Next to speak were survivors of Rwanda and Darfur who urged international action against genocide. Gibreil Hamid, President of the Darfur Peace and Development Center, stated his concern that Darfur is not on the agenda of an anti-racism conference. He wishes people with clean hearts who care about human beings would run the U.N. He said Darfuris are in desperate need.

Esther Mujawayo spoke about the genocide in Rwanda, in which one million people were killed in 100 days. She recounted how it began with the incitement to genocide on Rwandan radio broadcasts that played songs with lovely melodies, but terrible words encouraging Tutsi extermination. Those responsible for the broadcasts and ensuing massacres were not “African barbarians,” she said. “They were trained intellectuals.”

While Mujawayo spoke with contempt about the silence of the masses who witnessed the genocide but did nothing to stop it, she also commended the few people who risked their lives to assist Tutsis. “I refuse that evil will have the last word,” she said.

For more on Hamid and Mujawayo, see previous blog posting on their commentary at a UN Watch side event.

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