This article was published by the Guardian’s Comment is Free website
What did the UN walkout achieve?
23 April 2009
Some say the action played into Ahmadinejad's hands, but it was a necessary reminder that this forum is not a podium for hatred
As United Nations and NGO delegates pack their bags to leave Geneva, the city where 500 years ago Calvin arrived to preach his austere moralising version of Christianity which culminated in burning at the stake those who contradicted him, what lessons can be learned from the Durban 2 conference?
If the first Durban conference in 2001 turned into a festival of anti-Jewish hate bringing out into the open forums and fringe meetings of the UN the antisemitism that for the second half of the 20th century had been hidden in the backroom meetings of the National Front or the BNP, by the Holocaust-denying "intellectuals" like Robert Faurission and David Irvine, or by the then little-known Islamist ideologues like Sayid Qtub, the Durban 2 conference in Geneva declared "No pasaran!" to the preachers of anti-Jewish hate.
Anyone who worked with black independent trade unions which spearheaded the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s was struck by the number of Jewish South African activists, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and students who worked shoulder to shoulder with the non-white majority to undermine and finally overthrow apartheid without recourse to violence.
Durban seemed a good place in 2001 to continue the 20-year-long tradition of UN conferences aimed at combating racism, intolerance and xenophobia. Given that antisemitism is an expression of racism and that the reason Israel came into existence was to have a little patch of the world where Jews might not suffer the racism, intolerance and hate that in Britain gave rise to the Aliens Act 1905, legislation designed to keep Jews out of the UK, and which the Daily Mail promoted in its anti-Jewish xenophobic journalism in the 1930s, and which culminated in the organised, industrial, carefully programmed, scientific selection of Jews from all over Europe to be killed by execution squads and then in gas chambers, it might have seemed reasonable to hope that any UN campaign against racism would also campaign against Jew-hate.
Sadly, in Durban eight years ago, this was not the case. Delegations from democratic countries were caught by surprise as a well-organised, lavishly financed campaign against Israel and Jews was unleashed. But a Newtonian law works in international politics – to every action an opposite and equal reaction. So as the UN insisted on holding another conference on the same subject in Geneva, it was inevitable that NGOs who campaign against antisemitism would seek to ensure that Durban1 was not repeated.
And so it came to pass. Almost certainly if the Iranian antisemite Ahmadinjad had not chosen to celebrate Hitler's birthday (the Guardian cartoon showing him with a birthday cake celebrating Hitler's birth was a classic and in the eyes of many should redeem the poor old Guardian from the endless accusations that it is one-sided on this question) by insisting he should come to Geneva to make a classic anti-Jewish speech with all the usual antisemitic tropes about the "dubious Holocaust" and Jews controlling the media, finance and racist Israel, the Geneva conference might have passed off without making world headlines.
Was it right for ambassadors to walk out? The Assembly of the Palais des Nation was built to host the League of Nations. It heard the plaintive appeals against the dictators of the 1930s but Hitler never spoke there. Had he done so and done a similar rant against Jews and Jewishness as delegates heard from Ahmadinejad on Monday one might hope that our ambassadors from the 1930s would have walked out. As we know western diplomacy sought rather to appease anti-semitic extremists in power in the 1930s with consequences that followed. In 2009, we should know better.
Then there is the question of a total boycott. By instinct I am against boycotts. The NUJ and university teachers' boycotts against journalists and academics who are Jewish and who work in Israel seems wrong as it usually Israeli journalists and professors who are the strongest critics of their government. But sometimes a boycott is needed.
The original text which was meant to be adopted in Geneva not only included all and more of the anti-Jewish language from Durban 1 but more perniciously the line promoted by some Islamists (and the Vatican) that any criticism or mocking of religion amount to discrimination and should be outlawed.
To propose this in Geneva, the city Voltaire lived close to in order to seek refuge there when the clerical authoritarianism of ancien régime France wanted to imprison him for mocking the superstitions of religion was hugely ironic. "I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is attributed to Voltaire, and whether he did or did not say it, the idea is the most important pillar of freedom in the world.
For a UN conference even to consider coming to Geneva to bury Voltaire's dictum in the name of faith was a monstrous absurdity. Yet without the boycott campaign and President Obama's final decision not to lend his name to the process, the Geneva conference could have easily been hijacked by the new theocratic powers of the world. The UN secretariat seems unable to resist this 21st-century assault on human freedom. It needs a fightback by states and the boycott by Canada and threatened boycott by the US and some European states forced the UN secretariat to remove anti-Jewish and anti-freedom of expression language.
However what did not make sense was the last-minute boycott by Germany (even though that country has to be extremely sensitive to Jewish concerns for obvious historical reasons) followed by Poland and then most absurdly of all the Czech Republic. As a result, one of the big losers of the Geneva process was the coherence of European Union foreign policy. As over China, Russia, even tiny Kosovo, the EU is losing all sense of unity and common purpose on major foreign policy issues.
Another loser, sadly, was the UN itself. The leading Canadian jurist and former attorney general, Irwiin Cotler, is as pro-Israeli as they come. He wrote a book, Why I Am a Zionist, but he told the UN Watch fringe conference in Geneva that the neocon attack on the UN should be resisted. Paraphrasing Voltaire, Cottler said: "If the UN did not exist, it would have to be invented." Alan Dershowitz, doyen of the pro-Israeli jurists and academics in America, also surprised some with a condemnation of Israeli tactics in the recent Gaza fighting, notably the use of cluster and white phosphorus bombs.
But there was no discussion at the UN about Iran's racism against Arabs who live in Iran, still less its discrimination against women, gays or its gruesome position as the world leader in executing children and teenagers. No discussion on the racism in many Asian countries against fellow Asians but from different cultures. No discussion of the pitiless quasi-genocidal murder of Muslim in Sudan. Or does a Muslim regime killing Muslims not count?
Some like Seumus Milne and Tony Lerman have argued that boycotts and walk-outs only serve Ahmadinejad's purpose and delegates should have stayed and argued with the Iranian president. If only. The UN is not an university seminar. There is no exchange as in a Commons debate. It is a forum for argument and power, and when it is used as a podium for hate and 21st-century antisemitism then David Miliband and Bernard Koucher were right to say "No pasaran! ".
But the victory of Geneva over Durbanwill be shortlived unless all the NGOs there come together to work to combat discrimination and racism. For many NGOs that wanted to see a serious debate on racism the hijacking of the conference by Ahmadinejad was a disaster. NGOs combating antisemitism prevented a repeat of Durban 2001. But Geneva 2009 will only really be a victory if they now build bridges with NGOs representing the BME communities as the fight against racism and antisemitism is one and the same.