Sunday, February 03, 2008

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Welcomes Arab Charter That Calls for End to Zionism

From the Times Colonist (Canada) - January 30, 2008

Arbour welcomes charter that calls for end to Zionism
Steven Edwards
Canwest News Service

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

UNITED NATIONS - Louise Arbour, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has thrown her support behind a major pan-Arab human rights charter that commits to the elimination of Zionism.

Some critics say the wording is code for the destruction of Israel, but in a statement from her Geneva headquarters, the former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada welcomes the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which will come into force in mid-March.

"Regional systems of promotion and protection can further help strengthen the enjoyment of human rights, and the . . . charter is an important step forward in this direction," Arbour says.

While the document demands respect for a host of internationally recognized human rights, its references to Zionism concern leading human rights activist groups, including Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists and UN Watch.

The charter's preamble speaks of "rejecting all forms of racism and Zionism," alleging they violate human rights and threaten international peace and security.

Article 2 of the 53-article document says "all forms of racism, Zionism and foreign occupation and domination" should be "condemned and efforts must be deployed for their elimination."

"These provisions cannot be dismissed as harmless rhetoric," says a letter UN Watch sent Monday to Arbour asking her for a "clarification" of her support for the charter.

The term Zionist Entity is routinely used in the Middle East and beyond by countries and groups that do not recognize the Israeli state or its right to exist.

The UN General Assembly faced accusations of anti-Semitism over its 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.

A U.S.-led effort succeeded in seeing the resolution thrown out in 1991.

"We believe that even if the Arab Charter may contain other constructive provisions, nothing can justify any endorsement of a text with such hateful language - language that has been thoroughly disowned by the United Nations in 1991," the UN Watch letter says.

The Arab world felt its own charter would better reflect its cultural heritage than do international protections such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

An initial 1994 version fell short of international standards in many areas, while the current version dates to revisions begun in 2004.

At that time, a newsletter issued by Arbour's office shortly after her appointment as UN high commissioner for human rights called the charter's Zionism references a "contentious issue."

Amnesty International said in a paper the charter should use international human rights standards as a point of reference "rather than focusing on a particular ideology or ideologies."

The International Commission of Jurists called for the removal of the Zionism wording, saying the charter needed to focus exclusively on human rights in the region "without digressions of a political nature."

A number of Arab countries have poor human rights records, leading some to believe documents such as the charter should not be held back even if they are not perfect.

"There are a lot of guarantees of rights and freedoms, and the feeling (among some) is that it's a step forward if we can say we have one document that everyone should look to," said Said Benarbia,  ICJ legal officer for the Middle East and North Africa.

A spokesman for Arbour's office said it planned to address the UN Watch letter in the near future.

Arbour issued her statement after the United Arab Emirates on Jan. 15 became the seventh country to ratify the charter, thereby triggering a two-month countdown before the measures take force.

The governments of Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Syria, Palestine and Libya have also ratified the document.

Of the group, only Jordan is among three Arab League countries that have normalized relations with Israel.

Reporting Syria's signature in 2006, the country's SANA news agency specifically cited the calls for the elimination of Zionism, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

Among other issues questioned by international human rights groups, the Charter says certain rights can be suspended in the event of a national emergency.

On marriage, the charter stipulates it can only be between a man and a woman.

Women, who face religion-based discrimination in many Islamic countries, are guaranteed equal rights "within the framework of the positive discrimination established in favour of women by the Islamic Sharia, other divine laws, and by applicable laws and legal instruments."

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