U.N. racism conference: The ulterior agenda: destruction of the freedom of speech

I confess I had forgotten about the U.N. World Conference against Racism, in Durban, South Africa, on Sept. 8, 2001. It turned so quickly into a racist, anti-Semitic hate-fest that Secretary of State Colin Powell stood up and walked out.

The indignant commentary was just getting started when the Sept. 11 attacks swept the coverage away. The event was largely forgotten.

I bring it up now because they're at it again. The United Nations has scheduled a sequel, dubbed Durban II, to take place in Geneva next spring. (This time, Durban's city fathers refused to host it.) And if the 2001 event proved to be an embarrassment for the United Nations and the world, the next one promises to be a shameful travesty that will light up cable news, late-night TV talk shows and multimedia blogs for weeks.

Worse, the event is certain to cleave an even deeper divide between the Arab states and the rest of the world. It's preordained. Consider what happened just a few days ago, as reported by the Web site Eye on the UN.

The conference's planning chairman invited Iran to join his inner circle - the "friends of the chair" - to add Iranian wisdom to the topics at hand: preventing racism and promoting human rights. Why Iran? Well, the answer will almost certainly leave you asking: What were they thinking?

The planning committee chairman is none other than Libya. The rapporteur ... Cuba. And the new vice chair, Iran. Several Western states are unranked members. But the leaders and their allies are running roughshod over everyone else. These countries have a clear agenda: to batter Israel and the United States and ram through proclamations decrying insults to Islam.

The European Union proposed to discuss freedom of expression. Speaking for the leadership, Egypt declared that freedom of expression is "political in nature and not grounded in objectivity." As a result, discussion of the subject is "not acceptable." The EU gave up.

In Cairo this summer, the Arab League began work on what it calls a "guidebook" on permissible "media terminology for Arab causes" to replace "false and defamed terms" - like, perhaps, freedom of expression?

Many Arab states, including Egypt, say they favor freedom of expression - except when it infringes on government prerogatives or Islamic doctrine or any other subject the government doesn't want to talk about. I have firsthand knowledge of that.

Working in Egypt in June, I visited Burullus, a small town on the northern coast. After interviewing a few people about recent riots over a price increase for bread, I set out to interview people in food stores. We stopped at one butcher shop and asked to speak to the owner. He looked over my shoulder, out to the street, then simply shook his head and turned away.

Heading back to the car, we spotted an Egyptian secret police officer - they are unmistakable - calling in our license plate number over a radio. Moments later, my translator got a phone call from a local friend. The police had issued an arrest warrant - for trying to talk to the butcher.

My driver turned off the road and hid on the beach behind some fishing boats. After awhile we took an eastern road, not the highway south to Cairo. We escaped. So much for freedom of expression in Egypt.

The United Nations' much-maligned Human Rights Council is organizing Durban II, so it's small wonder that the planning is proceeding as it has. In a recent council session, a speaker asked to bring up a particularly egregious human rights problem: genital mutilation of women. Egypt objected mightily, demanding: "We will not discuss issues related to Shariah law; this will not happen."

He thundered on, joined by a colleague from Pakistan, until the item was dropped.

Shariah, of course, is canonical law based on the teachings of the Quran and the traditions of Muhammad. I wasn't aware that it advocated genital mutilation.

Like it or not, this conference will happen. The best course is to ignore it. My guess is that the EU came to that conclusion and decided it had better things to do than get into a dogfight about freedom of speech.

The United States, thankfully, has ignored all of this so far. The next administration will have to decide whether to participate. Canada already has announced it will not attend. As Jason Kenney, a secretary of state, put it, Durban II "has gone completely off the rails."

Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times. E-mail Insight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. E-mail Brinkley at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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