Politics & Policy

Durban II Circus

Ringmaster Ahmadinejad set the tone of the "anti-racism" conference.

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.


To universal surprise, Durban II’s final outcome document was adopted by consensus on the second day of the five-day conference. This is highly unusual. Generally, conference documents are not finalized until the last day, after all delegates and NGO representatives have had an opportunity to address the assembly.

The president of the Durban Review Conference, Kenya’s Amos Wako, declared that the speedy adoption was a triumph of engagement. In fact, it was a testament to fear. The U.N. feared that more countries might walk out, making the conference an even greater embarrassment. And the EU countries that had returned after their walkout feared that the outcome document might become worse and reveal the extent to which their “engagement” had failed.

The only group that stood to gain from waiting until the end of the conference to approve the document was the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, which hoped to insert language more critical of Israel and supportive of constraints on freedom of speech in the name of prohibiting “defamation of religions.” As Wako hailed the vote as a triumph of engagement, he refused to recognize Libya’s boisterous effort to be recognized, presumably in order to express its desire that the outcome document include more condemnatory language on Israel.

After the final document’s adoption on Tuesday, government delegates, U.N. human-rights experts, NGO representatives, and others continued to speak — seemingly oblivious to the fact that their comments served no real purpose. Only in the U.N. circus do people debate matters that were settled days ago.


Throughout the week, speakers chastised the ten countries (including the U.S.) that had chosen to boycott Durban II. According to this narrative, the final Durban II outcome document was a triumph of compromise that, unlike earlier drafts, did not disparage Israel or undermine fundamental human rights. Boycotting nations were accused of stubbornly failing to recognize the significance of this diplomatic achievement.

This is true to an extent: The final document was better than earlier drafts. Left unsaid, of course, is that it was improved only because the U.S. and other countries announced their intention to boycott if the document was not fundamentally changed.

And even the improved document does not merit U.S. support. It makes significant references — overt and implicit — that run counter to U.S. policy regarding Israel and the fundamental right to freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly.

On the matter of Israel, the very first paragraph of the Durban II outcome document reaffirms without reservation the 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA). That document, in a section titled “Victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” states: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation.” This was a key reason why the Obama administration stated that if Durban II accepted the earlier document “in toto,” it would be crossing a red line that would lead to a U.S. boycott.

Moreover, at least six paragraphs in the outcome document call for constraints on freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly. Paragraph 13 states that “all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts shall be declared offence[s] punishable by law.” Paragraph 60 “urges States to punish violent, racist and xenophobic activities by groups that are based on neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist and other violent national ideologies.” Paragraph 99 “calls upon States . . . to declare illegal and to prohibit all organizations based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin, or which attempt to justify or promote national, racial and religious hatred and discrimination in any form.”

No reasonable person supports the kinds of speech the conference wants outlawed. However, freedom of speech and assembly mean very little unless they apply to political and moral pariahs. Uncontroversial speech and organizations do not need to fear constraints. A society’s adherence to these rights is measured by the extent to which objectionable groups and ideas are accorded protection.

While the Durban II outcome document is non-binding, it will be repeatedly referenced in future U.N. documents and cited by the various treaty bodies as a definitive interpretation of the will of the international community. Unfortunately, it sets the stage for a retreat on human rights rather than an advancement.


The Durban II conference is a testament to the fundamental problem with letting the United Nations take the lead on human-rights issues. Its universal membership and institutional adherence to moral equivalence allow the clowns to run the circus.

It elevates and empowers the world’s worst human-rights abusers by treating them as morally equivalent to those who observe and value human rights. It allows them a global stage to voice their lies and hypocrisies. The end result is at best disappointing, at worst harmful to the advancement of human rights around the world.

– Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation, where Steven Groves is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas fellow.


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