Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Durban II - Day 2: The Farce Continues

Dear readers,
Heebonics has managed to secure first-person coverage of the World Conference on Racism - aka Durban II. For the duration of the week, we'll be posting daily updates from Adena Phillips.

She is a Torontonian and a member of ACCESS, the American Jewish Committee’s New Generation Program.

Here she is in her own words. A fascinating glimpse into the ongoing Durban II circus. Our thanks to her for the intrepid reporting.

Another morning in Geneva and everyone is talking about yesterday’s spectacle at the General Assembly. Many of you have read stories about what took place inside the official proceeding; I bring you some stories from the sidelines.

I am one of 21 delegates – and the only Canadian – in my group of 20 and 30 something-year olds sent here on behalf of the American Jewish Committee to enforce the organization’s longstanding commitment to eradicating all forms of bigotry. We have the privilege to attend official meetings as well as interact with the throngs of NGOs who have flocked to Geneva for this controversial event.

Breakfast this morning is with the European Union of Jewish Students; the students are excited about the enthusiastic undermining of Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy as the only country leader to speak at the conference, but they are also disappointed that they will not be allowed to observe today’s proceedings. The students were banned from the conference after students demonstrating outside the gallery and had their badges taken by UN security. I am sitting next to Josh Kookin, National Political Director of the Australian Union of Jewish Students who was standing in the halls of the UN with a small sign reading “shame on Ahmadinejad”. On my left is Mark from Canada who was standing outside disseminating flyers to raise awareness for Darfurian refugees.

Security guards approached both Mark and Josh, wordlessly unclipping their badges, and shortly after, their entire delegations were notified that they are banned from the conference.

Rafael from France spoke to the group – taking out his now famous (or infamous?) clown wig and nose, eliciting applause from the group. He talked about the ‘circus’-ness of a UN that has a man like Ahmadinejad speak at a conference on racism. When pressed about his politics, Rafael lamented the anti-Israel sentiment he faces on campus in France.

In speaking about Israel, Rafael stressed that he is a Zionist, and also very much Pro-Palestinian. He supports a two-state solution, recognizes the nationhood for the Palestinian people and their right to a homeland. He asserted that Israel should be scrutinized fairly and to the same proportion as other nations at this conference and in general.

As I passed through security outside the UN this morning, a North African man in front of me was stopped for holding a bunch on magazines as he walked through the metal detector. The security agent confiscated the Arabic language magazines and started leafing through them. As the line began to get impatient, the man started yelling at the security guard, who I have to admit seemed to be taking a little too long in examining the magazines. We have all been there before – confronting airport officials who have a little too much fun yielding power. The man asserted that he was a diplomat carrying universal literature and the guard retorted that he may as well be the secretary general. North African man starts screaming in French, accusing the guard of being a racist.

This scene is becoming all too familiar in the halls of the UN. At the Durban Review Conference, the R word is the ultimate accusation and one that is quickly losing its cache as it gets tossed around and conflated with other distasteful incitements. The security guard was definitely being rude, arrogant, I would even go so far as to say patronizing. But if the delegate thinks that this is the racism he is here to combat, we are being gravely misled. There it is; the rub of the Durban Review Conference.

There are a lot of angry people here who are passionate about numerous valid atrocities – but not all of them fall into the rubric of racism. In fact, most do not. And the more we ignore the real beast that is racism, the more threatening the beast becomes.

(Video of Libyan torture victim confronting the conference panel yesterday, and its attempt to shut him down.)

Dr. Feysal Mekdad, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs is at the podium when I enter the General Assembly. He is speaking eloquently about the themes of the conference; racism, foreign occupation xenophobia, and intolerance…. What was that again? One of these things is not like the other. I ruffle through my pamphlet again to make sure the conference name or scope has not changed. It hasn’t officially, but Dr. Mekhad repeatedly references the conference subject and includes ‘foreign occupation’ in its title. Smoothly, he denounces what he calls racial violence by Israeli settlers and institutionalized bloodshed and discrimination by the Israeli government. Then he segues into claiming Israeli leaders ‘throwing Palestinians into the sea’ and mourns some 12,000 Palestinians who are in prison for ‘no reason other than their love for freedom and dignity’. Denouncing the ‘Judaisation of Israel’, he cautions against the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that must be halted. Not flinching, the audience politely applauds and moves on to the next speech. Business as usual.

Feysal Mekdad

I am shocked. How did we move from a discussion on racism to a one-sided account of a political – not racial – conflict? How is the relevant and critical issue of the discrimination and oppression of the Kurds in Syria forgone entirely for a topic completely out of scope of the conference? Bahrain takes the mike and it’s more of the same.

I’m here for a world conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. In search of that conference, I’m heading to some NGO side events to see what the buzz is there. More later.

(Video of dozens of UN delegates walking out on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel laced speech during his inaugural address at the conference Monday morning.)

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