Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Last Word: Racism and the UN

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By Jeremy Jones


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and many others in the Iranian Islamist regime, are true believers. The hatred, the distortions of history, the religiously-sourced arrogance he spouted in Geneva was not a cynical political ploy as much as an expression of firmly held ideology.

While his widely derided speech at the Durban Review Conference (DRC) may have been part of a broad strategy to position Iran as both righteous victim of Western aggression and noble leader of a fanciful Islamic world, the words in the speeches (noting the existence of an official version and the one he delivered) were consistent with what he and his circle regard as the truth.

If the primary purpose of the Durban Review Conference was, as has been said officially, to review progress in combating racism since the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism, the Iranian leader’s speech provided stark evidence as to the state of racism in the international community today.

Ahmadinejad demonstrated that the holder of views both noxious and obnoxious can become president of a state, that he can be feted by governments and achieve celebrity status amongst segments of publics in a swathe of other countries. He can be idolised and idealised by self-described progressives who, for example, equate enmity to Israel and the USA with human rights.

There has been progress in some countries in combating racism, through government action, education and legislation, since 2001, but virtually all of it in spite of, not due to, the outcome of the Durban Conference.

The Stockholm Conference series, which began prior to 2001 and continued beyond that year, brought together governments from Europe (and others specifically invited such as Australia), to exchange “best practice” models on Holocaust Education and Remembrance, Reconciliation, Combating Hatred and Genocide Prevention.

A larger group of governments with a significant degree of overlap with the Stockholm invitees came together at conferences organised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, concentrating on research, setting benchmarks and assessing priorities for the fight against racism and intolerance.

In this part of the globe, a strong case can be made that each of the Asia/Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogues has provided more of a counterweight to discrimination and prejudice than UN processes are ever likely to do.

In the long process leading up to the DRC, it was abundantly obvious that the last thing on the agenda of many of the governments most engaged in it was an honest assessment of progress since Durban I or the reality of racism today.

For despots and dictators, the conference presented a golden opportunity to divert attention from their own failings on to the favoured scapegoats of Israel, the USA and “the West” in general.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference members also embarked on a campaign to delegitimise and outlaw intellectual critique of what they contend is religious truth.

Leading human rights abusers appeared to relish yet another whitewashing of their behaviour, knowing there was no chance that any United Nations conference, with alliances, allegiances and blocs firmly in place, would seriously consider any of the worst contemporary crimes against humanity.

One of my most vivid memories from my participation in the Durban Conference as part of the Australian delegation was the response to our government’s objection to the acceptance of the outcome documents of the notorious NGO Conference which preceded the main event. The Australian table was rushed by well-wishers from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, whose consistent theme was that they wished that they had been permitted by their foreign ministries to also articulate the only really principled position.

Given the realities of the workings of the United Nations and the well-documented abuses of procedures and decency at the 2001 Durban Conference, it beggars belief that some of the most strident local critics of Australia’s non-participation in the Geneva event actually believe what they have been arguing.

The conference was never structured in a way which could facilitate principled responses to racism – the best case scenario was, and is, that it didn’t further empower the purveyors of racism, discrimination and intolerance.

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