Does One Moron Really Ruin The Whole Conference?

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There’s been plenty of hysteria surrounding the United Nations Durban Review Conference currently being held in Geneva. Writing on his Herald Sun blog, Andrew Bolt described the conference as the "great festival of Jew hatred". He wondered whether it was "a complete coincidence" that the conference fell on the 120th anniversary of Hitler’s birth. He dismisses the arguments of some of those supporting participation in the conference as engaging in "nasty smell[ing]… caricature" before wondering why Human Rights Commissioner Tom Calma "and his other … junkateers" are attending "a conference for racists".

Bolt would have us believe that one cannot support a UN anti-racism initiative without supporting the rants of Ahmadinejad. The logical corollary to that is saying one cannot oppose Australia’s participation in the Durban II conference without supporting the hysterical fatwas of our own tabloid mullahs — like Bolt — and their supporters.

To get some idea of just how absurd the hysteria has become, consider this. One prominent delegate at the conference was described as "a bigot and a racist" who is "blind, deaf and dumb when it comes to issues of Israel". Two US universities were condemned for inviting him recently, with the national director of the Anti-Defamation League stating the man was "… a poor choice for a … speaker … His statements about Israel have time and again conveyed outright bigotry against the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people … should have raised a red flag. This is not someone to be held up as a model … given his history of bombastic rhetoric and unceasing support for the anti-Israel boycott effort".

And who is this nasty despicable racist who shows bigotry to the Jewish people? Why, none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and a Nobel peace laureate. In May 2008 Tutu visited Gaza as part of a UN fact-finding mission. In September 2008, Tutu suggested that an incident in which an Israeli shell killed 18 members of the same family might constitute a war crime. Tutu also supported the proposed academic boycott of Israel initiated by some British academics, and has compared Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians to South Africa’s old apartheid regime.

Tutu is not the first prominent South African activist to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to South Africa’s apartheid. Farid Esack was a prominent leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF). He is one of the few Muslim scholars campaigning to end discrimination against victims of HIV/AIDS. Esack has visited Israel numerous times, and his conclusions will not be music to the ears of Israel’s die-hard supporters.

Opponents of the Durban Review Conference have been working for months to discredit the affair even before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Geneva. They claim that the initial Durban conference in 2001 descended into a morass of anti-Semitism. But anyone who reads the Durban I declaration will realise that it wasn’t just about singling out Israel. And anyone who claims the whole process is just about singling out Israel is merely helping the cause of those who single out Israel.

The UN’s multilateral anti-racism process isn’t about Israel and Palestine. Not everything the UN does is about Israel and Palestine. The 62-page Durban Declaration and Programme of Action spoke about racism in all its manifestations (a fair few of which have shown up in recent public debate here in Australia). The document spoke of the sufferings of persons of African descent, whether through trans-Atlantic slavery or colonialism or apartheid or the kind of contemporary racism you’d read on an Australian tabloid website commentary on crime. It spoke of xenophobia against asylum seekers, something Herald Sun readers might be familiar with. It recognised racism, ethnic chauvinism and xenophobia as a major cause of wars. And it spoke about the rights of indigenous peoples, including the ones regarded as not being black enough by right-wing commentators.

Ahmadinejad may deny the Holocaust, but the Durban I document certainly didn’t. Paragraph 58 of the Durban I declaration states: "We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten". And Ahmadinejad should understand that his anti-Semitism runs parallel to other forms of prejudice he perhaps wouldn’t approve of: "61. We recognise with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities".

And in case anyone has any doubts, I think Ahmadinejad’s remarks before and at the Durban Review Conference have been xenophobic and moronic. I haven’t had to wait for his most recent performance to make my own position clear. But does that mean my government must withdraw from a major multilateral effort to fight racism and xenophobia?

Sometimes when you attend international gatherings, you have to hear things you disagree with. Often they are ugly views. But there is a difference between demonising the demonisers and rejecting the entire process. It made sense for a host of Western countries to walk out of Ahmadinejad’s speech at Durban II. Now that his rant is over, the time has come for us to walk back in.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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