THE PLANK APRIL 19, 2009
Libya was chosen in 2007 to chair the preparatory committee for the UN Durban Review Conference--notwithstanding the irony of an egregious human-rights violator chairing a human rights conference. For the past three days, the committee has been holding sessions to finalize the conference's draft statement, upon which many countries will base their decision whether to attend the conference this week. On Friday, the last day, NGOs were given 30 minutes to weigh in. Amidst the anti-Israel rants from all the usual NGOs, Libyan ambassador Najjat Al-Hajjaji (who was chairing the meeting) gave the floor to UN Watch, an organization affiliated with the American Jewish Committee that "monitors the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter." But sitting in their chair was not Hillel Neuer, the group's executive director and usual mouthpiece, but Ashraf El Hagog, the Palestinian doctor who was falsely accused of and sentenced to death for infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV (along with five Bulgarian nurses). El Hagog and the nurses were held in Libya on death row for nine years, mistreated and tortured, until their release was negotiated by France last year. "Madame Chairman," El Hagog began, staring steely eyed at the Libyan ambassador. "I don’t know if you recognize me. I am the Palestinian medical intern who was scapegoated by your country, Libya, in the HIV case in the Benghazi hospital, together with the five Bulgarian nurses."Al-Hajjaji immediately started banging her gavel. "Stop... stop.... I ask you to stop," she yelled, first looking miffed, then exasperated. "You are, you are not addressing the agenda item... I will allow you to resume only if you address the agenda item we are discussing." The room immediately fell silent.El Hagog, being coached by Neuer sitting next to him, tried to introduce some amendments to the statement "based on my own suffering," and was again interrupted by Al-Hajjaji banging her gavel. But he continued recounting the story of his torture, then said, "All of this, which lasted for nearly a decade, was for only one reason: because the Libyan government was looking to scapegoat foreigners. Madame Chair, if that is not discrimination, then what is?" After listing the amendments, he concluded: "Madame Chair, Libya told this conference that it practices no inequality or discrimination. But then how do you account for what was done to me, to my colleagues, and to my family...?" (Click here for a full transcript of his testimony.)At this point, Hajjaji recognized a point of order from ... the Libyan delegation, who said that El Hagog was not speaking on the correct agenda item. Hajjaji used the objection as an excuse to move on to the next speaker. I found Neuer on Saturday night at the UN Watch offices across the street from the UN compound, his hair rumpled and dressed in a t-shirt and sweats, working late into the night preparing for the upcoming Durban II conference. As one of the few NGOs that calls the UN on its human rights hypocrisy--particularly relating to Israel--Neuer does not often have reason to celebrate, so he could hardly contain his excitement over Friday's stunt. "The Libyans have been 'chozer b'teshuva,' they've repented--they're in with everybody these days," he said. "It is important to call them on this, to their face." Neuer had tipped off a Swiss television station, so they were on hand to film El Hagog's testimony; the story, billed on the broadcast as a UN Watch "coup d'eclat," led the news that night. (Click here for an English-language video of the incident.) "It's a small thing in the grand scheme of things," Neuer said. "But it's a rare moment that people are called on their bull crap in the UN."I caught up with El Hagog at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy today, where he read the section of his speech that was cut off by Hajjaji: "How can your government chair the planning committee for a world conference on discrimination, when it is on the list of the world’s worst of the worst, when it comes to discrimination and human rights violations?"He elaborated on his message to Libya and the UN: "It is disgusting for Libya to be the chair of a human rights conference at the UN. Shame on you, Libya." He said that, while he was in prison, he could handle the hanging, deprivation of food and sleep, and being raped by a police dog; what finally broke him was when they "finally threatened to torture my family in front of me," he said. "I was really scared of that." Upon his release, he was given Bulgarian citizenship, and is now committed to holding Libya accountable for their crimes. "I will remain, until the last moment of my life, as a stone in their throats."--Zvika KriegerClick here to read more dispatches from Durban II.