Zionism Debate Clouds U.N. Racism Forum

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The upcoming United Nations Conference on Racism in Switzerland may be mired in charges that it is anti-Israel. Some countries say they won't participate in the conference because many attendees equate Zionism with racism.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's Day to Day. Back in 2001, the United Nations held a conference on racism, a conference so controversial that both the U.S. and Israel walked out on it. Next month in Geneva, Switzerland, the U.N. will try again but already several countries including Italy and Canada have dropped out of the summit. From Geneva, Alex Helmick reports.

ALEX HELMICK: The document produced in Durban, South Africa was supposed to be a guiding force on anti-racism around the world. But the talks were riddled with what some viewed as an anti-Semitic tone.

Ms. NAVANETHEM PILLAY (U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights): I'm fully aware that the legacy of the 2001 Durban conference has been tainted.

HELMICK: That's Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She was speaking to the human rights council earlier this month. She says anti-Israel activists in Durban acted wholly inappropriately with signs of swastikas and chants filled with slurs. And now, pro-Israel movements are using that to discredit the upcoming summit in Geneva.

Ms. PILLAY: And now, the review conference has also been the target of a disparaging media and a lobbying campaign on the part of those who fear a repetition of anti-Semitic outburst.

Mr. HILLEL NEUER (Executive Director, U.N. Watch): It's really unfortunate that the high commissioner is resorting to a kind of scapegoating.

HELMICK: Hillel Neuer is with U.N Watch, a group affiliated with the American Jewish Committee that's often critical of the United Nations.

Mr. NEUER: The event is and was designed as a political exercise for the world's most intolerant regimes to indict the world's most tolerant democracies.

HELMICK: Neuer says Muslim nations will use the conference as forum to attack Israel and the U.S. because it supports Israel. He says the human rights council is dominated by Muslim countries. But Julie de Rivero who heads Human Rights Watch in Geneva says the document produced in Durban was actually quite good and dealt with broader topics than just Israel.

Ms. JULIE DE RIVERO (Human Rights Watch): The first Durban conference actually resulted in positive texts regarding migrant rights, regarding discrimination on multiple grounds, including women's rights.

HELMICK: De Rivero says government will have to juggle the difficult task of defining international guidelines on racism and discrimination with politics. And one of the most controversial issues on the agenda is a plan being pushed by some Islamic countries that says criticism of religion constitutes a human rights violation. This push stems from cartoons and movies in the European media depicting the prophet Muhammad, the Koran and Muslims in an unflattering way. But Julie de Rivero with Human Rights Watch says such restrictions are dangerous because they violate notions of freedom of speech.

Ms. DE RIVERO: You know, the idea that you can protect religions from being defamed and that this is a human rights issue is a serious concern to us because in fact it's something that could lead to strict limits to freedom of expression which don't exist.

HELMICK: De Rivero worries that some countries without a strong heritage of freedom of speech could be influenced to implement government censorship. Talks on the final wording of the document will continue until the April 20th conference. In the end, governments will have to make a decision on whether attending the conference gives it unjust validity or if the possibility of a positive result is worth the rocky dialogue on racism. For NPR News, I'm Alex Helmick in Geneva.

COHEN: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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