While ambassadors and foreign ministers from around the world give seven-minutes speeches in the main Assembly Hall, NGOs have been invited to speak at the same time on dozens of panels around the UN complex. Since the conference organizers decided not to hold a separate NGO Forum this year (which, as I noted yesterday, was the center of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity at the 2001 Durban conference), this is where the majority of NGOs have been advocating their issues. Hoping to avoid the 2001 debacle, the conference organizers have limited these panels to topics that deal with "thematic" questions such as the treatment of women or immigrants, not individual countries.
On Tuesday, I attended a panel entitled "Human Rights, Discrimination And Islamophobia," which touched on one of Durban II's hot-button issues: defamation of religion. A number of Muslim countries tried to get the Durban II final statement to oppose incitement against religion, which many Western countries saw as a veiled attempted to restrain critics of Islam (or institute so-called "blasphemy laws"), thereby restricting freedom of expression. Some of the countries that have decided to boycott, such as the Netherlands, actually listed this issue before their concern about Israel in their decision to skip the conference.
The panel was thus overflowing with attendees--about two-dozen delegates from Jewish and pro-Israel groups among the hundred or so people sitting at the tables, lining the walls, and crouching on the floor. It began innocuously enough, with a series of relatively balanced presentations from various academics and activists on issues including the attacks on Tamils in Sri Lanka this week, the use of anti-Muslim rhetoric as a political tool, the affect of anti-terror laws on Muslims, and discrimination against Muslims in Europe.
But as soon as Charles Graves, the event's chair and secretary general of Interfaith International, opened the floor for questions, dozens of hands shot up--almost all of them from anti-Israel activists. The first questioner, declaring that the "most dangerous thing against Muslims around the world is Zionism actually," asked the panel to confirm that Zionism is a racist ideology. Another questioner asked how this panel can be related to the "crisis in Gaza," and how the UN can work to address the "injustice against Gaza people."