Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ian Williams: Universal human rights can’t allow a get-out clause

Tribune May 8

IN THE end, despite the hysteria, the British delegation to the Durban II racism conference in Geneva did not boycott the event. Despite the rhetoric and the posturing, international conferences can lead to conventions enshrining basic principles for the global community. They have led to effective standard settings in human rights – as the improvements that the European conventions have made to British practice will demonstrate.

So I was more tolerant of Durban II, despite the antics of the NGOs – and some of the governments. I must also admit that, as a rule of thumb, anything hated so intemperately by the likes of Binyamin Netanyahu, John Bolton and Melanie Philips certainly deserves some sympathy.

Gordon Brown and David Miliband merit applause for withstanding the tendentious fury of the Likud lobby, whose views on boycotts and embargoes in general are demonstrably, to use their favourite accusation, “one-sided”. Barack Obama’s administration did not score so well. It practiced a form of coitus interruptus, defying the calls for boycotts, engaging in face-to-face intercourse with other delegates – and then withdrawing at the last moment – giving cover to the bevy of white colonial and settler states to pull out as well. It was sadly reminiscent of Bill Clinton-era prevarication, when the United States would dilute international conventions and then still refuse to accept the result.

That so many Western countries persistently unite to give Israel a free pass in the aftermath of Gaza, after Lebanon and after its continuing defiance of international law, is shameful. And it lends support to the assorted oligarchs, ayatollahs and tyrants who can point to the West’s manifest double standards on human rights to justify their own depredations.

Political equations need to balance. If we refuse to talk to Hamas, Hizbollah or Iran because they refuse to recognise Israel’s “right to exist”, then we should also refuse aid and sustenance to those who refuse to recognise a Palestinian state or threaten an attack on Iran.

Indeed, the Islamic states did their best to aid Israel and its allies with their contrived confusion of Islamophobia and legitimate discussion of Islam and proposed ban on any criticism of the religion. Islamophobia is much more widespread than anti-Semitism in the developed world, as anyone called Muhammad who has flown recently could testify.

But fortunately the delegations which attended Geneva defeated the attempt to introduce into international law the concept of blasphemous libel that the British Government tried to get through Parliament a few years ago. Luckily, no one called for a boycott of the House of Lords, whose wisdom threw out the bill.

It is significant that the Israeli government has been lobbying across the world for countries to stay away – not to attend and resist any language or concepts it considers untenable. And this continued, even when the conference conclusions dropped any reference to Israel. Even if Israel is not explicitly mentioned, the conclusions of any international conference or convention on racism will put Israel’s behaviour in the dock. If countries that could be bullied or persuaded to stay away, if the whole event is smeared incessantly as anti-Semitic, it diminishes its force. In fact, Israel wanted a boycott of this conference precisely because its conclusions can only indict the day-to-day reality of the occupation, which is racist in both concept and application. The rest of the boycotters’ name-calling is just intended to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise entirely unconvincing argument.

Ironically, in the month of the conference, Israeli railways fired 40 Israeli citizens – because they were Arabs. Many social benefits are available only to citizens who have completed military service – which excludes most Arabs – but citizens who attend Yeshivot get a free pass. A law of return for Jews that excludes all others, even those born in the land, is unavoidably racist.

If you are an Israeli Arab citizen who demonstrates, the police may shoot to kill you, as happened in Nazareth in 2000 to 13 unarmed protestors. You would look long and hard for any reports of similar lethal violence against Jewish settlers furiously and violently attacking Israeli soldiers and police, let alone unarmed Jewish demonstrators. And, in the West Bank, we have the ultimate Bantustans, where Israel goes even beyond apartheid South Africa and manages to segregate the road system.

Those who walked out of the conference after Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s silly speech have given succour to those who are still using the aftermath of colonialism to justify their own callous greed and incompetence. The caste discrimination, affecting millions in shamefully humiliating ways, the strictures in some Muslim countries against other religions all escaped scrutiny. The unpunished pogroms against Muslims in India went unmentioned, for example.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a Western concept. It is universal, as its title proclaims. It applies to Muslims, Jews, Christians, Arabs and Israelis – and atheists, for that matter.

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