Day 1: Sunday April 19:
The anti-Racism Conference as it Should Have Been
By Gil Troy
Jerusalem Post Blog
April 19, 2009
Geneva is awash in the light green of early spring, nestled amid snowcapped mountains. Arriving from Israel, I found the city’s tranquility surprising, until I remembered this was Sunday morning not Monday. Still, the quiet set the tone for this first day, on the eve of what promises to be a tumultuous United Nations Durban Review Conference on Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance beginning Monday (the UN shifted from Durban to Geneva hoping to avoid the riotous anti-Semitic atmosphere of Durban, 2001).
Entering the city, I passed the Intercontinental Hotel, where Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is staying before addressing the conference Monday. Many Swiss citizens are urging their president not to shake Ahmadinejad’s hand. “But,” my taxi driver shrugged, “protocols must be followed.”
What a perfect welcome to Europe – and to the UN’s moral myopia. By cherishing protocols more than human rights, the world enables dictators. Despite advocating Israel’s and America’s destruction, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be welcomed like a head of state, rather than the genocide-seeking rogue he is.
Fortunately, twenty human rights NGOs hosted a “Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy,” or what I call the “Anti-Racism Conference as It Should Have Been.” Offering a mirror image of the Durban Review conference leadership, many of the speakers suffered repression thanks to the leaders of today’s UN Human Rights Council. The 22 speakers from Iran, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, along with the hundreds of attendees, rejected the toxic combination of European politesse and dictatorial manipulation perpetuating what one speaker called the “coalition of autocrats around the world.” That speaker, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, imprisoned in Egypt for three years, said that having Libya lead the human rights council made a mockery of human rights. He also denounced “the indifference of the democrats,” regretting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vow that human rights issues would not sour American relations with the Chinese.
“When people no longer denounce injustice … we are giving an oxygen boost to dictators so they can continue to trample on people’s rights,”
Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo, a Cuban activist warned.
In the emotional opening session, victims of the Darfur and Rwanda genocides moved delegates to tears, by describing the evil they endured.
Dominique Sopo, the President of SOS Racisme, condemned the Durban Review conference’s “negationism,” ignoring real the human rights crimes. “It is unbelievable that Darfur is not on the agenda,” Sopo insisted. “What is the point of having a conference against racism if this is ignored?” Contrasting the UN’s passivity with the opening panelists’ activist idealism, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler thanked the dissidents for “inspiring us to act and do that which needs to be done.”
Celebrating sixty years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, sessions examined the declaration’s various articles. This afternoon’s session examined Article 5, the “right to be free from torture and cruel or inhuman treatment.” Parvez Sharma described “Jihad for Love,” his film describing the discrimination Islamic homosexuals endure. Ahmed Batebi, a dissident imprisoned in Iran for nine years, recounted how he was thrown in solitary confinement on flimsy legal grounds. He recalled: threats, mock executions, brutalization of friends, and how “they tied my hands to a chair and kept me awake until I lost consciousness, then cut me and poured salt in my wounds to wake me up.” This cruelty, he explained, “is an attempt to crush the spirits” of anyone who criticizes Iran’s regime.
Finally, Dr. Ashraf El Hagog, a Palestinian doctor, and Kristina Valcheva, a Bulgarian nurse, described how Libya falsely accused them of spreading HIV, then tortured them with beatings, electrical currents, and sexual sadism. “It’s disgusting” that Libya is chairing the UN human rights council, Dr. El Hahog shouted, “SHAME ON YOU LIBYA.” Noting that a Jew was one of the first people to help him get out of prison, Dr. El Hagog admitted that he had been imprisoned in his own ideology, and now regretted his bigotry.
“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Soe Aung, a Burmese dissident begged. Once, that slogan was the UN’s watchword. Today, the sentiment challenges UN protocols. We owe it to these democratic heroes to do what we can to use our liberty to promote theirs – while pushing the UN to fulfill its historic mission. Meanwhile, we buckle our seatbelts for the farce that Ahmadinejad and his fellow dictators will launch tomorrow.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of "Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today." He is attending the Durban Review Conference in Geneva as an observer.