With the close last week of the United Nations Durban II Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerances, the world’s oppressed should feel no safer. What went on in Geneva was a spectacle that would have made even the most jaded observer of international politics wince, and one that more than justified the conference’s boycott by the US, Canada, Germany and Israel, among others.
It was on the first day of the conference that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a racist speech in which he denied the legitimacy of the Israel, excoriated the West for all the problems in the world (both historically and today), and suggested that a Zionist conspiracy controlled the world’s major institutions. It has been little reported that the president of the conference, Amos Wako of Kenya, had the authority to stop the speech and one might have thought he would have employed his right to do so – if not to uphold the point of an anti-racism conference, then at least under the pretext that Ahmadinejad exceeded the 7 minutes he was given to speak by over a half-hour.
But it was not just the Iranian President’s tirade and his rock-star worthy reception by many in the audience that exposed the anti-racism conference as a farce. Indeed, watching official after official from governments where racism and discrimination are hallmarks hold court without being forced to account for the crimes of their regimes would have been laughable if it were not so dispiriting. “My government took measures and made laws against all forms of racism and discrimination among races and cultures and languages,” Sudan’s Deputy Minister of Justice told his fellow delegates. Each and every Arab country that took the stage didn’t miss an opportunity to lash out at Israel for supposed crimes against humanity. Other delegations castigated Western countries for colonialism and slavery while avoiding the serious human rights abuses, including slavery, that plague the modern world. This was a pathetic excuse for a human-rights conference.
Many of the journalists covering the conference were little better. During the daily press conferences, few covering the five-day extravaganza dared to ask tough questions about what the conference was actually accomplishing. When one journalist questioned the conference spokesman about how an event purports to tackle the issue of racism could avoid focusing on the crisis in Darfur, many of the reporters covering the event looked visibly annoyed, as if they preferred get back to more important issues like the precise number of people removed from the conference for misbehavior. And when reporters got the opportunity to question Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his infamous speech on Monday, the lucky few who were given a chance to challenge the demagogue wasted the opportunity by asking the Iranian leader about what his country’s position was on recognizing Kosovo? Thank heavens the great Iran-Kosovo question was finally cleared up.
Ramu Damodaran, a spokesman for the conference, told me that while no country, no matter how appalling their human rights record, was specifically the subject of the conference, they expected that various member states “might be challenged by other states or by civil society representatives if they have something in their record which people might object to or find possibly dubious.” Damodaran may have been sincere in this expectation, but the reality was far different, as countries with troubling human rights records were given a free pass. I watched many of the speeches by delegations to the conference and not once did I hear Sudan or North Korea criticized. In fact, the only country that was routinely attacked from the dais by name was a free and democratic Israel.
None of this seemed to be a problem for the UN officials who put on the conference. To them, such criticisms were easily dismissed as propaganda, a part of a nefarious conspiracy to see the conference fail. At the final press conference Friday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay heralded the conference as a tremendous success in spite of this conspiracy and noted that while she was disappointed that some Western countries boycotted the conference, she was heartened that 182 countries adopted its Outcome Document condemning discrimination and political repression, among them Iran. “They can still add their names to the 182 states that have adopted the Outcome Document,” Pillay said of the countries that boycotted. Nowhere did Pillay express any awareness of the fact that Iran and other gross human rights abusers signed on to a text that they have no intention of following.
As the delegates packed up and left the Palais de Nations for the final time last Friday in one of the chauffeur-driven Mercedes that clogged the parking lot all week, those sincerely committed to fighting racism and other human rights abuses should have asked themselves what had really been accomplished. Will a single victim of Sudan’s terror in Darfur be saved by what has happened in Geneva? Will even one North Korean suffering under the boot of Kim Jung-Il feel some relief? The answer, of course, is no. Whether a United Nations conference could have helped these victims of human rights abuses in any real way is a fair question, but one would have at least hoped that a conference dedicated to fighting racism and promoting human rights would have highlighted their cause.
Still, Durban II did accomplish one thing: it demonstrated clearly the inanity of the United Nations. The good news is that the United States boycotted the conference. The bad news is that President Obama has signaled his intention to get America involved with dozens of smaller Durbans each year by seeking a seat on the no-less-despicable UN Human Rights Council.