(CNSNews.com) – Everyone should have the right to criticize breaches of human rights, and if Islamic states use an upcoming U.N. racism conference to criticize Israeli policies this “should neither be perceived nor portrayed as anti-Semitism,” according to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Critics of the Durban Review Conference (“Durban II”) view the OIC -- whose members account for 57 of the U.N.’s 192 member states -- as the leading instigator of a campaign to use the gathering to attack Israel, Jews, Western counter-terrorism initiatives and freedom of expression. Those critics are calling on democracies to join Israel and Canada in boycotting the conference.
The Bush administration, which withdrew in protest from the original Durban conference in 2001, shunned the Durban II preparatory process, but left a decision on whether to participate in the April 20-24 conference to its successor.
The Obama administration says it shares the concerns. In a policy shift last week, it sent a delegation to four days of talks at the U.N. in Geneva, “to try to change the direction in which the Review Conference is heading.”
The State Department said in a statement afterward that the U.S. had yet to make a final decision on whether or not to participate, but that information from the week’s work would be important in that regard.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the OIC’s Jeddah-based secretary-general, has welcomed the U.S. decision to participate in the preparatory talks.
He said in a statement a decision to be represented at the Review Conference “would be widely perceived by the Muslim world as a credible signal of the new U.S. administration’s goodwill and desire to introduce a fresh, fair and objective approach to the issues related to human rights and Middle East peace process as well as to rejuvenate the United States’ positive image throughout the Muslim nations.”
Ihsanoglu then turned to some of the controversies surrounding the event.
Durban II, he said, “should not be perceived as a gathering of the U.N. member states to criticize specifically Israel [but] … rather be perceived as an expression of the global community’s growing concern over acts of discrimination, intolerance and incitement to hatred.”
It would be a setback, he said, if any country stayed away from the conference “because of some pre-conceived notion that the Review is directed against any particular country.”
A key criticism of the “outcome document” being drafted for Durban II is the singling out of Israel.
Still intact in the draft, in a section on the Middle East, is a reference to foreign occupation being “a contemporary form of apartheid.” The draft also takes issue with Israel’s “racially-based law of return” and refers to the “racial policies of the occupying power.”
The draft, currently 45 pages long, does not refer specifically to other conflict situations around the world where race is a factor.
Ihsanoglu said criticizing Israeli policies and practices that contravene human rights principles should not be seen as anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism is a practice which neither originates within, nor belongs to the Muslim communities,” he said. “Therefore, anti-Semitism should not be associated either with the religion of Islam, or with the OIC member states.”
The question of “defamation of religion” is another controversial aspect of the Durban II process. The outcome document raises concerns about “Islamophobia” and condemns the association of Islam with terrorism, “including through publication of offensive caricatures and making of hate documentaries.”
In his statement, Ihsanoglu “emphasized the OIC’s firm commitment to freedom of expression which is a fundamental human right.”
“The OIC is not looking for limitation or restrictions of this freedom beyond those that already have been set by Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” he said.
(Article 19 of the covenant upholds freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions necessary to respect “the rights or reputations of others.” Article 20 prohibits “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”)
The outcome document does include references to restrictions on free speech. It “urges states … to take firm action against negative stereotyping of religions and defamation of religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols.”
And states are also called on “to develop, and where appropriate to incorporate, permissible limitations on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression into national legislation.”
The OIC for several years has spearheaded a campaign aimed at outlawing religious “defamation.”