Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, August 4, 2006
Some members of the 18-person, Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) argued that whether within its remit or not, the body had the right to express concern about the humanitarian situation in Lebanon resulting from the conflict.
Others, however, believed the discussion was clearly within the competency of an anti-racism body, and accused Israel of targeting Arabs because of their race, according to a U.N. summary of the debate.
Jose Lindgren-Alves, a Brazilian on the committee, asked whether there was not at least a tinge of racism behind Israel's "disproportionate" response to the kidnapping of its soldiers.
He wondered whether Israel have reacted as harshly if there was no racism involved.
Agha Shahi, a committee member from Pakistan, said that was a valid point, and asked whether Israel would have resorted to bombing a civilian infrastructure if it were fighting against non-Arabs.
Nozipho January-Bardill, a South African, agreed there were elements of institutionalized racism at the root of the violence. People only gave themselves the right to kill in this way when they had "inferiorized" the victims, she argued.
The CERD is tasked with overseeing compliance with a 1969 document called the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Members of the committee are selected in their personal capacity and do not officially represent their countries' viewpoint. According to the U.N., they are "independent experts who are persons of high moral standing and acknowledged impartiality."
Morten Kjaerum of Denmark said the committee did not have an obvious mandate to discuss the crisis, while Ralph Boyd, a member from the U.S. also said it was hard to find a "nexus" between the crisis in the Middle East and the convention the committee was meant to be dealing with.
The committee did not have a "free-floating" mandate, Boyd said
If its members wanted to comment on the humanitarian crisis, they should do so as concerned citizens of the world, not as a committee without first having a firm understanding of the links between the crisis and the convention.
Boyd also tackled members about the one-sided focus on Israel, noting there were other parties playing a role in the crisis - a non-state organization using Lebanese territory to launch attacks, and two state parties providing that organization with material support and refuge. He did not name them, but the reference was clearly to Hizballah, Iran and Syria.
Mahmoud Aboul-Nasr of Egypt objected to calling Hizballah a terrorist organization, saying it was a resistance movement fighting foreign occupation, and likening it to similar movements during World War II.
Other members did not appear to agree with the argument that Israel's actions were motivated by racism, but still felt what was happening could feed racial hatred.
Fatima-Binta Dah of Burkino Faso said there not sufficient proof of racial-motivation, but added that the conditions created by the conflict propagated and exacerbated hatred.
Britain's Patrick Thornberry agreed that conflicts contributed to racial discrimination by generating new discrimination and new hatreds.
Regis de Gouttes, a Frenchman and chairman of the committee, said all armed conflicts gave rise to the escalation of racial and cultural hatred, xenophobia and terrorism.
Jewish groups earlier appealed to the CERD not to hold the session.
The American Jewish Committee said in a letter to the chairman that the discussion not only was outside of the body's mandate, but it was also one-sided.
Noting that the session was on "the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon," AJC executive director David Harris said it promised to focus entirely on the situation in that country, but to ignore the humanitarian impact of the more than 2,000 rockets Hizballah had fired into Israel, killing, maiming and displacing Israelis.
Harris said he hoped the committee would also look at the racism spread by Hizballah around the world via its satellite television network, al-Manar.
The French government in 2004 rescinded a decision to allow al-Manar to beam programs into France after reviewing material and agreeing it spread racial hatred against Jews.
Another Jewish group, the World Jewish Congress, wrote to U.N. human rights commissioner Louis Arbor on Wednesday, urging her to intervene and prevent the CERD session.
"At a time when the seriousness of U.N. reform and mandate review is the subject of widespread skepticism and frustration, such a breach of CERD's mandate will smear the reputation of a previously non-politicized body and further undermine the U.N.'s credibility and capabilities in advancing and protecting universal human rights," the WJC wrote.
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization affiliated with the AJC, slammed the committee for holding the session.
"In addressing an issue bearing no relation to its mandate, in the service of the political agenda of a few, CERD today has dangerously jeopardized its own credibility, casting a shadow upon the reputation all U.N. expert bodies," executive director Hillel Neuer said in a statement.
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