Sunday Tangent: Economist on UN racism conference fiasco, April 2009


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Hi Blog.  Here’s what happened some weeks ago, regarding how the April UN conference on racism, the Olympics for human rights worldwide, turned into a bit of a fiasco, what with competing interests hijiacking the event.  Again.  A bit old, but still worth blogging on nonetheless, because it shows that what goes on in Japan is comparatively small potatoes, and how our issues are probably not going to get the attention from outside that they should.  Pity.  Racism is one hard mother to define, unite against, and defeat.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


UN conference on racism

Avoiding the worst
Apr 23rd 2009 | GENEVA
From The Economist print edition

Despite the indignation caused by an Iranian tirade, some gallant souls were accentuating the positive after a UN deliberation on race

IN ONE of the more dramatic scenes in modern diplomacy, a resolution describing Zionism as a form of racism, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1975, was excoriated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America’s UN ambassador, as an “infamous act” and a “terrible lie”. Then in 1991, the resolution was reversed and (to quote another senior American diplomat) consigned “to the dustbin of history”.

In both votes, the outcome matched the times: the first resolution was promoted by a Soviet-Muslim coalition in a spirit of cold-war antagonism; the second reflected expectations of a “new world order” with America at the helm. To judge by the disorderly scenes that unfolded in Geneva this week, at a UN conference on racism, today’s international climate is far more rancorous than it was 18 years ago, and not too far from the poisonous mood that prevailed in 1975.

At this week’s gathering, expectations were cautious, to put it mildly. A legion of critics (in governments and elsewhere) said the affair would just be a hatefest directed at Israel and the Jews: no better, they said, than the UN’s anti-racism conference in 2001. Fear of a repetition had persuaded Australia, Canada, Israel and four European countries to stay away. So, at the last minute, did America, dashing hopes that a black president would warm to a discussion, however flawed, on racism.

The sceptics’ case received a huge fillip from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who railed not only against Israel but the Western countries which helped found the Jewish state, and “under the pretext of protecting the Jews…made a nation homeless with military expeditions and invasion.” Although in his public remarks he dropped an earlier formula which directly called in question the Holocaust, the speech led to a walkout by 23 European delegations. The governments that walked out (or stayed away) got notes of thanks from Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister.

That scene is undoubtedly the thing that the world will remember most about the week’s proceedings. Yet only a day later, supporters of the conference (including some sane-ish governments and NGOs) were speaking of success: the adoption of a resolution that might just be a landmark in the battle for tolerance and free speech.

Most of the European countries that walked out of Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech made clear soon after that they were not quitting the whole conference. (Only the Czech Republic did; it now holds the European-Union presidency, but on this matter it was not acting for the EU.)

For those who walked back in, another source of relief was the fact that few were inclined to follow the lead of Mr Ahmadinejad (the only head of government who was present) and focus mainly on Israel and the Middle East. This change of tone, plus the fact that a carefully drafted resolution was adopted by consensus, led some Western governments to claim that the sharp-tongued visitor had been neutralised. It all “showed just how out of step the Iranian government is,” said Peter Gooderham, Britain’s envoy to the UN in Geneva.

For diehard optimists in the human-rights world, Mr Ahmadinejad’s intervention was only a hiccup in the process of crafting a charter setting out principles that could guide national legislation and other efforts to combat racism.

It is true that some hard work went into making the final resolution easier for Western governments to sign. In early drafts, Islamic countries had sought to introduce a clause making defamation of religion a breach of human rights, with disturbing implications for freedom of expression. Iran, alone, had also sought to exclude any reference to the Holocaust.

The document finally adopted makes no explicit reference to Israel and the Middle East. Its chief flaw, in the eyes of critics, is that it reaffirms the outcome of the 2001 conference, where the Jewish state had come in for much criticism. Despite that, Western human-rights groups hailed the new text’s exclusion of illiberal language deploring the “defamation” of faith; instead, it deplores the “derogatory stereotyping and stigmatisation of persons based on their religion or belief”. Thus “it recognises the primacy of individuals, not the primacy of religions or ideologies,” noted Agnes Callamard of the London-based free-speech group, Article 19.

For B’nai B’rith, one of a raft of Jewish groups which came to Geneva to voice alarm over the UN proceedings, the final text was still “fatally flawed” because of its allusion to the 2001 meeting in Durban. “The adoption of this document shows nothing has changed since 2001, no lessons have been learnt—and the hope for a unified approach to fighting racism and intolerance around the world will again go unfulfilled,” B’nai B’rith said.

But several human-rights groups concurred with Mr Gooderham’s view that the final statement “covers the ground pretty well”. It avoids some of the unwelcome language (from a Western standpoint) that was initially mooted.

“It’s a breakthrough because it overcomes the polarisation that existed between the Islamic countries and the Western world. It shows they can find common ground on issues that had caused this polarisation,” said Julie de Rivero, Geneva representative of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global civil-liberties group.

For HRW, the outcome added weight to its contention that liberal-minded governments should stay in the room and argue rather than storming out and leaving the ground to noisy extremists. Perhaps so—but it might be a tad too optimistic to say that polarisation between the West, the Islamic world and other ideological and regional blocks has been overcome. In any case, some fresh evidence on that question will emerge next month—when the United States stands for election to the UN Human Rights Council in the hope of changing that body and making it less inclined to direct all its fire at Israel.

2 comments on “Sunday Tangent: Economist on UN racism conference fiasco, April 2009

  • Brazilian says:

    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

    It was mostly a diplomatic act, of course, but I don’t think they should have left the room. What we need for a better world is discussion. Don’t just deny the discussion, discuss it. We must overcome some issues, so we can move forward onto the others.

  • @Brazilian: But there is a point when further discussion makes no sense and will only cause damage. What should the European delegates have discussed with Mr. A? Should they have bartered on how many Jews were possibly killed in the holocaust? Should they have discussed wether a nuclear attack on Israel would be tolerable, or just a conventional one, or just the usual guerilla killings? Should they have sought a compromise on the Iranian regime murdering youths accused of homosexuality, maybe suggesting to throw the youths into prison, and kill just the grownups? I think the point is clear: you don’t compromise with a dictatorship regime out on a killing spree.


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