Geneva – United Nations conferences are often likened to “three-ring circuses.” That description was more accurate than usual when the Durban Review Conference commenced here this week.
Like any good circus, the Durban II show shocked right from the beginning. The first representative to speak on racism was the world’s most prominent Holocaust denier and anti-Semite, Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The air was thick with anticipation: Would he tone down his anti-Semitic rhetoric, or would he treat the anti-racism conference to the full force of it?
He rose to great applause from many of the government delegates and, shamefully, from representatives of some of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Shortly after Ahmadinejad took the stage, the circus metaphor became literal, when three young men (they turned out to be French Jewish students) wearing rainbow-striped clown wigs rushed the podium, one even throwing his red foam nose at it.
Seemingly unfazed, Ahmadinejad unloosed a diatribe that shocked even a U.N. audience. Over the course of his address, he:
Attacked Europe and the U.S. for slavery and oppression.
Accused the members of the U.N. Security Council of using their veto power to uphold “discrimination, injustice, violation of human rights and humiliation of the majority of nations and countries.”
Stated that, after World War II, Western nations had “resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless, on the pretext of Jewish suffering.” (His original text continued with a reference to “the ambiguous and dubious question of Holocaust,” but he apparently removed the words “ambiguous and dubious” at the urging of U.N. officials.)
Accused the U.S. and Europe of establishing a “most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine,” and of continuing to support Israel while it commits “atrocities,” “brutality,” and even “genocide” against the Palestinians.
Asserted that the Iraq War was an effort by the U.S., conceived in collusion with “Zionists,” to gain control of Iraq’s resources and support the interests of arms manufacturers.
Called on the international community to combat Zionism, stating: “Today, the human community is facing a kind of racism which has tarnished the image of humanity at the beginning of the third millennium. World Zionism personifies a racism that falsely resorts to religion, and abuses religious sentiment, to hide its hatred and ugly face.”
Announced that “the unjust economic management of the world is now at the end of the road,” to be replaced by a “common global system that will be run with the participation of all nations of the world.”
Ahmadinejad concluded his remarks to great applause from certain groups of delegates. However, not everyone was pleased. Several European Union delegates walked out in the middle of the speech, and the Czech Republic announced that it would not return to Durban II because of Ahmadinejad’s comments.
Immediately following the speech, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre declared that Iran was making itself the “the odd man out.” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated, “I utterly deplore the speech of the president of Iran delivered this afternoon at the Durban Review Conference against racism. . . . Much of his speech was clearly beyond the scope of the Conference. It also clearly went against the long-standing U.N. position adopted by the General Assembly with respect to equating Zionism with racism.”
However, Ahmadinejad was hardly the only outrageous speaker at Durban II. While other delegates were not as bombastic and eschewed the term “Zionist,” several took the podium to echo Ahmadinejad’s sentiments. For instance:
The Palestinian representative attacked Israel as a racist state that violates international human-rights conventions. He called Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories the “worst violation of human rights and the ugliest face of racism and discrimination.”
Syria included “foreign occupation” (a thinly veiled reference to Israel) among the primary targets of the Durban II conference, ranking it above racism, xenophobia, and “related intolerance.” He recited a litany of crimes allegedly perpetrated by Israel, including throwing Palestinians “into the sea” and undertaking ethnic cleansing.
Cuba launched an attack on Western countries for the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, demanding that those countries provide compensation. Cuba went on to state that racism “has a greater impact and impunity in the countries from the rich and industrialized North.” After an obligatory attack on Israel as an “occupying power that does not recognize the limits of justice, moral[s], or the international law,” the Cuban delegate reached back to the 1970s for a solution to racism and inequality, calling for a “new international economic order . . . based on equality, solidarity, and social justice.”
Sudan — the regime that committed the massive atrocities (in fact, what most people would call genocide) in Darfur — claimed to oppose all forms of racism and discrimination. The representative rejected accusations of continued slavery in Sudan, and accused Israel of conducting a racist military campaign in Gaza.
Durban II provided a forum for other human-rights luminaries as well, including Belarus, China, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe.