Something Rotten in the State of Geneva

  • Date / 28 April 2009

The controversy of the Durban Review Conference has betrayed a new fear of freedom of expression. By Sophie Erskine, representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the United Nations, Geneva.

When he invited me to attend the Durban Review Conference (or “Durban II”), the 2009 United Nations World Conference against Racism held in Geneva this week, Roy Brown expressed the hope that “it doesn’t turn into a complete shambles.” I am sorry to confirm, having attended all five painful days of the Conference, that in my view it has indeed been a shambles: a potential lifesaver for victims of racism around the globe, hamstrung by a shamefully low state turn-out and a consequent flurry of panic-stricken voices, all simultaneously clamouring for attention. A missed opportunity for social progress and human rights protection? Mais oui, mes amis. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn and improve.

You can’t exactly blame states for their caution. They were terrified of repeating Durban I, the last World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) held in Durban in 2001, whose results were to be evaluated by Durban II’s participants. Durban I was controversial for many reasons, but mainly because it seemed to turn into an anti-Semitic hate-fest. A draft outcome document was produced, offending many states by mentioning the occupied Palestinian territories and singling out only Israel as worthy of condemnation. As a result, Canada, Israel and Italy pulled out of Durban II, all citing a wish to avoid any reversion to conference number one.

After this vote of no confidence and threats from other states to boycott as well if their red lines were breached, a new draft outcome document was issued, now omitting the most toxic paragraphs. However, on the eve of the Conference, the United States pulled out, followed in quick succession by Australia, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, Poland and the Netherlands – this last on the grounds that the document failed to recognise that there had been more than one slave trade in human history. The Netherlands also claimed that the draft declaration was a “wasted opportunity” and that Durban II was “too important” to be “abused for political purposes”. So, with only a handful of Western delegations present, but a plethora of African and Arab representatives on the scene, Durban II opened and Ahmedinejad strolled into the Assembly Hall.

Only a small number of NGOs were allowed to be present in the Hall, so most flocked to a nearby room in the labyrinthine UN complex to watch the speech on a big screen. As Ahmedinejad delivered his diatribe, a fight broke out. Among about 700 representatives, I saw blacks, whites, burqa-clad Muslims and Orthodox Jews all listening carefully. You could cut the tension with a knife. As soon as the clown-wigged protestors started their heckling, there was uproar. Rows and rows of delegates leapt to their feet, cheering and clapping – some even stood on the tables.

The Iranian president was, for once, drowned out. Other delegates tried to shout down the shouters. “This is racism! Leave the room!” one yelled. “Don’t leave! Don’t leave!” pleaded a peacenik. When dozen of Western delegates were seen walking out of the Assembly Hall, a hearty cheer erupted and was followed by more fierce exchanges. Security guards looked on, baffled.

Students stormed the corridor the next day. Wearing the same clown wigs as their Ahmedinejad-baiting colleagues of the day before, a dozen members of Union des étudiants Juifs de France (Union of French Jewish Students) rallied their troops, punching the air and roaring into the meeting rooms: “Durban Deux! Mascarade! Durban Deux! Mascarade!” – Durban II, a masquerade. One girl continued to scream as security guards rushed her away.

This conference has been a perfect example of what happens when one party to a discussion is so wary of the opposition that they refuse the challenge. Such sheepish defeatism leads to the preponderance of one sort of opinion and a confused melange of other, quieter voices (and the hopeless non-event that the conference finally became). Yet the preponderance of one sort of opinion is precisely the sort of thing that leads to racism in the first place. So, to put it mildly, there’s something a bit odd going on here.

If you ask me, the best way to overcome fear of freedom of expression – my diagnosis of the boycotters’ malaise – is by engaging confidently in such expression from the beginning. I said that the Netherlands called Durban II “too important” to be “abused”. But if it’s so important, why abandon it altogether? If the risks of allowing certain parties to speak are so high, why let them speak unopposed? Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed her disappointment in a side-event to the Conference on Tuesday at the fact that, due to so many states refusing to attend, Ahmedinejad’s was practically the only voice heard and remembered on the opening day. Thank goodness for Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Store, who gave his speech immediately after Ahmedinejad’s and was the only diplomat to call Iran’s statements contrary to “the very spirit of dignity of the conference”.

It is particularly ironic that the states who have refused to participate in Durban II are the same states who preach the value of freedom of expression at the quarterly Human Rights Council sessions. As Noam Chomsky said, “if you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” Israel and America in particular seem to want to ignore those states whose principles offend them. But being in favour of freedom of expression means listening and replying to them, not shutting up and quitting.

The Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger got it right when he said the boycotts were “not a sign of strength” for the European Union. Strong participation by Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand – in other words, a well-thought-out confidence in their own beliefs, bolstered by a willingness to engage in the battle of ideas – was needed. Instead, the only signs most Europeans gave were of insecurity and fear: insecurity in their own intellectual positions and fear that their own arguments might lose out against those who would perpetrate racist wars. I hope for the sake of my generation and the generations to come that diplomats realise one crucial fact: silence in the face of a threat spells acquiescence, not opposition. Refusing to debate equals surrender. And surrendering, I believe, is not what the boycotting nations really had in mind.

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