Tyrants Get Another U.N. Platform


An op-ed on Durban II by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egyptian dissident and Harvard scholar

The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2009

In 1948, the United Nations recognized the “inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights” of all human beings when it ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though this week’s U.N. conference in Geneva claimed to stand for these noble values, the world’s dictators were the real winners.

Too many official country delegates didn’t come to Geneva to stand up for the oppressed. They came to condemn the “colonial powers” of the West and Israel. In so doing, they sought to guard against exposing their own regimes’ human-rights records. While the delegates met in the official conference hall, the true defenders of human rights – civil society organizations and dissidents – gathered at their own conference where they examined today’s most pressing human-rights issues.

The deep divide between those who seek to expose human-rights abuses and those who only use the language of human rights as a shield is not new. It started during Rio’s Earth Summit in 1992, where, for the first time, the U.N. agreed to host two forums: one for government representatives and one for NGOs. The divide between government and NGOs, and between the Third World and the West, reached an apex in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. The central wedge issue was the treatment of the state of Israel.

Eight years ago, the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action (DDPA) singled out Israel for the harshest rebuke of any country. It was not that Israel was totally innocent of charges about its continued occupation of the Palestinians. But the vehemence with which the delegates issued this condemnation, and their manner of voting on it – the delegates cheered “Down With Israel” – led many to conclude that the DPPA bordered on anti-Semitism.

What compounded this sentiment is that most of the governments that pile on to condemn Israel and the so-called “neocolonial” West have terrible human-rights records. These include tyrannical regimes such as Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Libya, Iran, Syria and Egypt (my home country). Their atrocious violations have been widely reported by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

But members of like-minded voting blocs – such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Organization of African Unity and the League of Arab States – comprise more than two-thirds of the U.N. membership votes. Together, they can railroad through any resolution, no matter how absurd. It was this Afro-Islamic-Arab bloc that made sure Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be the keynote speaker in the opening session of this year’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.

Rightly anticipating that the Geneva conference would be a forum for anti-Western and anti-Israel propaganda, the U.S. and a score of Western democracies boycotted the conference entirely. More countries – such as Britain, Germany and Holland – walked out of the conference when Mr. Ahmadinejad delivered his usual anti-Israel tirade, calling the Jewish state a “most cruel and racist regime.”

Unfortunately, lost in this circus were the real victims who suffer at the hands of autocratic and theocratic regimes. The most vulnerable groups – the poor, women, children, migrant and stateless people – were ignored this week in Geneva.

Though the decision to boycott the conference was understandable, I believe it was a mistake. The U.S. and other democracies should have attended and fought back. An overwhelming majority of mankind would have applauded their moral courage.

I spent three years alone in an Egyptian prison for the crime of “tarnishing Egypt’s reputation.” Today, prisoners like Roxana Saberi in Iran languish in jails for crimes they did not commit. It is the job of true human-rights advocates to strengthen such victims by standing up to dictators.

Rather than letting Mr. Ahmadinejad steal the headlines, I would have liked to have seen the universally popular President Barack Obama take on the hypocrites who speak in the name of Islam and want to sacrifice such basic rights as freedom of speech by outlawing “Islamophobia.” Mr. Obama could have rescued the human-rights agenda from those who have hijacked it.

Though it didn’t happen in Geneva, I look forward to a campaign, led by Mr. Obama, to return the cause of human rights to its rightful owners.

Mr. Ibrahim was incarcerated by the Mubarak regime from 2000 to 2003. He is now a visiting professor at Harvard.

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