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Durban II Dispatch: Battle of the NGOs

How to hijack a UN panel.

Geneva, Switzerland

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."

Seeing the conversation getting side-tracked, the affable yet geriatric Graves tried to reorient the conversation. "We try in our approach to consider all of the victims of discrimination, and certainly Zionism is a fact of the world and certainly Zionism has caused suffering of the Palestinian people," he said. "But I don’t see how we can attack Zionism today in this particular meeting. Everyone knows what Zionism is and its history."

But before long, another questioner declared, "Considering the importance of implementing justice, we need to address the two injustices that occurred in Lebanon and also in Gaza." He sprung from his chair and said into the microphone, "In the language that we are standing in remembrance. One minute of silence for those who have been killed in Gaza." Immediately, approximately 30 activists in the room stood up (mostly from Iranian and Arab groups), as did most of the panelists at the front of the room. The rest of the room seemed a bit bewildered by the impromptu memorial; some, including Graves, seemed to stumble out of their chairs more out of confusion.

Someone interrupted the silence by turning on their microphone and yelling that the session was being hijacked. At that point, Graves requested order, saying, "We’ve had a minute." (When I interviewed Graves afterwards, he denied standing up in observance of the silence or condoning the call; he claimed he was just standing to figure out what was going on.)

The Jewish activists were visibly distressed by the hijacking, but since most of them were attending such a panel for the first time, seemed unclear what to do. Two of them finally raised their hands, but at that point, it was too late; Graves only called on questioners who had been raising their hands since the beginning.

The Israel advocates seemed to have learned their lesson at the next day's NGO panel on "Freedom Of Expression And Incitement To Racial Or Religious Hatred," which was more explicitly about the controversy over defamation of religion laws. When the chair opened the floor to questions, a dozen Jewish activists raised their hands, and of the five people called for questions, three were from Jewish groups. They were prepared with questions about the rights of Bahais by the "radical religious regime in Iran;"  incitement to hatred in textbooks and classroom indoctrination in Arab world; and religious freedom in countries like Iran, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.

Though most of the panelists gave the usual banal, pat answer to these questions, the most poignant response came from panelist Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who had spent most of his presentation criticizing human rights in the Middle East. "There are many brave human right defenders in the Arab world," he said calmly in response to the questions from the pro-Israel activists. "It is not respectful to their hard work and sacrifices when the human right situation in these countries is cited not in a genuine concern but as way of political scoring or name-calling." As one of the Jewish activists told me after the session, "It was such a powerful response because there was definitely a hint of truth in it."

Zvika Krieger is a deputy web editor of The New Republic.

Click here to read more dispatches from Durban II.