UN racism conference and Iran’s president

Experts say that the Durban II conference raised several contested issues like racism, Islamophobia, freedom of speech and colonialism. The question is why colonialism? They believe that this is the basic explanation of the chasm that manifested itself in the walk-out yesterday. Colonialism was supported and justified by racist ideas and executed in a spirit of Caucasian and Christian supremacy to “civilize” others. It is not the only history of racism.

ON 20th April, at the second UN sponsored conference on Racism in Geneva, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the floor as the opening speaker of the main session. He spoke against the policies of the US and its allies on Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

The first conference on Racism was held at Durban in South Africa in 2001 and this conference in Geneva was therefore dubbed as Durban II. Durban I conference adopted a 219-point declaration, embracing all aspects of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Ten states stayed away from the Geneva conference, namely the US, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, The Netherlands and after the Iranian speech, the Czech Republic, the UN said. Meanwhile, some National Human Rights Commissioners have spoken against their country’s boycott.

President Ahmadinejad’s speech
English translation of some excerpts from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the conference is quoted as follows:

“Ladies and gentlemen: Following World War II, they (the West) resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering. They sent migrants from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine. In fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine.”

“It is all the more regrettable that a number of Western governments and the United States have committed themselves to defend those racist perpetrators of genocide, while the awakened, conscious and free-minded people of the world condemn aggression, brutalities and bombardments of civilians of Gaza.”

“What are the root causes of US attacks against Iraq, or invasion of Afghanistan? Was the motive behind the invasion of Iraq anything other than the arrogance of the then-US administration and the mounting pressures… to expand their sphere of influence, seeking the interest of giant arms manufacturing companies, affecting another culture with thousands of years of historical background, eliminating potential and practical threats of Muslim countries against the Zionist regime?”

“Why indeed were almost a million people killed and injured, and a few more millions were displaced and became homeless? Why indeed have the Iraqi people suffered enormous losses amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars? … Wasn’t the military action against Iraq planned by the Zionists and their allies in the then-US administration, in complicity with the arms manufacturing companies, and the owner of the world?”

“The United States and its allies not only have failed to contain the production of drugs in Afghanistan, but also the illicit cultivation of narcotics multiplied in the course of their presence. The basic question is what was the responsibility of the then-US administration and its allies? Did they represent countries of the world?”

“Have they been mandated by them? Have they been authorized on behalf of the people of the world to interfere in all parts of the globe, and of course mostly in our region? Aren’t these measures a clear example of egocentrism, racism, discrimination, or infringement on the dignity and independence of nations?”

Arab positive press reaction
The Iranian President’s speech attracted largely positive reaction across the Arab world. Looking at the Arab press’ reactions, the views on racism differed dramatically from those of the Western press.

As Egyptian columnist Mahmoud Mubarak wrote in al-Hayat on 20 April, “The seven years that have passed since the first conference in Durban, I have been some of the most racist in recent history.” From an Arab perspective, the US is to blame for much of this: the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Quran-pissing in Guantanamo, have all been products of a resurgent neo-colonialist US under President Bush.

Add to that the Muhammad cartoons, Israel’s incriminate wars on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, the continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and the racist ideology that underpins it. One then wonders, according to Mubarak, why none of these issues will be on the agenda at Geneva.

The Op-ed on 21 April in another of the pan-Arab London dailies, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, follows suit. Why did the European delegates walk out, when Ahmedinejad, deplorable as he may be, “only spoke the truth”?

This only underscores that the West is not fully committed to freedom of speech. In a conference on racism, critique of Israel, “the most racist regime since the dawn of time,” should be a natural target. At the very least, the critique should be listened to in full details. By walking out the EU delegates “consented to Israel’s position.”

The Geneva Declaration
All but 10 of the 192 UN member states adopted by consensus on 21st April a declaration at the UN Conference in Geneva calling for protecting vulnerable people and fighting against racism, discrimination and intolerance.

‘I am optimistic this document will have a great future and lead states to combat racism and racial discrimination,’ said Yuri Boychenko, the Russian diplomat who headed the committee which drafted over several frantic months the final declaration text.

The adopted text at the conference was a slimmed-down version of earlier options, from which the most controversial sections and phrases were removed. It contains no mention of Israel and does not support limiting free speech to curb critiques of religion as some had feared.

The 143 articles in the new declaration call for protecting vulnerable minorities and specifically name of some groups including the Roma and people infected with HIV or AIDS.

The text includes a paragraph recalling that ‘the holocaust must never be forgotten’ while also urging states to combat impunity for crimes of genocide. It names ‘neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist and other violent national ideologies’ as dangers that need to be combated. Much of the text deals with mechanisms and so-called ‘best practices’ for states to implement when trying to eliminate discrimination.

Sweden, which took over the Czechs as the voice of the EU after Prague decided on a boycott, welcomed the adoption. “We have successfully pushed issues, including the importance of freedom of speech as a basis for democracy and in the struggle against racism,” said Foreign Minister Carld Bildt and Nyamko Sabuni, the minister for integration and gender equality. They also praised the document for including ‘the importance of protecting people subjected to different forms of discrimination.’

Most delegates who took the floor in the main plenary spoke about thematic issues of concern such as the Middle East conflicts, Islamophobia or the legacy of colonialism, and steps their countries have taken to improve their record on racism.

Experts say that the Durban II conference raised several contested issues like racism, Islamophobia, freedom of speech and colonialism. The question is why colonialism?

They believe that this is the basic explanation of the chasm that manifested itself in the walk-out yesterday. Colonialism was supported and justified by racist ideas and executed in a spirit of Caucasian and Christian supremacy to “civilize” others. It is not the only history of racism.

Racist ideas or racial discrimination of other people have existed in many other parts of the world and in different historical periods. But it is one that has shaped our modern world decisively, and its effects persist in territorial conflicts such as that over Palestine since 1948 when a new Jewish state was created out of Palestinian lands, displacing millions of Palestinian people who are still refugees in foreign lands.

The English philosopher, political economist and Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) recognises that liberty does not license individuals to do as they please in his famous “Essay on Liberty.” That would mean the absence of law and of order, and ultimately the destruction of liberty. Liberty is measured not by the freedom exercised by one person, but rather by the freedoms exercised by us all including the Palestinians.

The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

Source: The Daily Star, 23 May 2009


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