Thursday, April 23, 2009

Durban II - Day 3 - Learning the rules of the game

Heebonics correspondent Adena Philips continues her coverage from Geneva.

Adena is attending the Durban Review Conference as a delegate from AJC ACCESS, the American Jewish Commitee's New Generation Program. This is her recap of Day 3, Wednesday, April 22, 2009.

Wednesday night. Every day of this conference seems to be a new game with a different set of rules. I will share a few anecdotes from today – so much has gone on and I will hopefully be able to unpack some deeper thematic discussions and raise important issues when I get home.

In an earlier post, I described the scene outside the registration tent on the first morning of the conference. I had walked by an Israeli student surrounded by a crowd of people who were grilling her about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The young woman, who I later learned was at the conference with an organization called Stand With Us, was calmly deferring criticism of Israel by asserting that Israel is indeed a democracy in quest for peace. The circular conversation was getting frustratingly repetitive (we didn’t start taping till at least 5 minutes in) when an African man stepped in announced that he immigrated to Israel and found a home there, and reminded the crowd that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be made the focal point of the conference. Take a minute to check out the footage below. It speaks volumes louder than my narrative.

The African man’s comment about the hijacking of this conference is a popular phraseology and quite aptly describes how some sessions – like the Islamophobia one I recounted yesterday – play out.

So what exactly is being hijacked? What should be taking place in the halls, galleries and conference rooms at the UN? This morning I attended a side-conference hosted by UN Watch that attempted to be that conference that should have been Durban II

Briefly, the conference was co-sponsored by numerous human rights groups and its purpose was to provide a voice for human rights victims such as Rwandan and Darfurian refugees, and a forum for academics, politicians and activists to address pressing and grave human rights issues. Look out for my article in next week’s Canadian Jewish News in which I will cover the conference in greater detail.

In the afternoon I headed back to the UN for an NGO side event on Freedom of Expression and Incitement to Racial or Religious Hatred, organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The panel presentation was a very technical and moderately interesting discussion on the nuanced terminology needed to delineate laws that protect freedom of expression while controlling incitement to hatred. Once the floor was opened for questions, a man from Denmark was quick to site a skewed case, poorly illustrating the degree to which incitement of hatred to Jews is punished while incitement of hatred to Muslims is not condemned. Really? News to me.

Immediately, a member from our AJC ACCESS delegation asked a question about the rights of people of the Bahai faith in Muslim countries like Iran where freedom of expression is limited via religious oppression. This question moved the conversation away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we were able to ask follow up questions that kept it there (here, I feel like I am a sportscaster, narrating as the puck is whisked away by the home team, then stolen by the visiting). Thankfully, the panel did not turn into an attack on Israel as yesterday’s had. That being said our delegation did receive a slap in the face; a slap because it was intended to criticize us, and also because it stung.

In response to the question about people of the Bahai faith, the panelist asserted that he did not appreciate groups advocating for human rights issues when they are really fronting their own personal cause and political posturing. The accusation, unfair because it wrongly assumed that AJC ACCESS does not sincerely care about and advocate for the religious liberty of all persecuted groups, and hurtful because it was obviously transparent to the chair that we are so busy defending our insecure and traumatized selves, trying to hog the conversation to prevent a threatening hijack, that our ability to effectively focus on the issues we care about is compromised. No doubt, defense in this game is essential, but wouldn’t it be nice to go out there and score?

When I say score, I mean let’s talk about the issues. Let’s talk about practical steps countries can take to protect freedom and limit hatred. I would have loved to see a room full of delegates in heated discussion about this crucial topic, but the panelist’s comment reminded me that we are not there yet. Whether playing defense or offense, no one, not even our idealistic delegation, is immune to the Durban deficiencies. The Durban Review Conference is systemically corrupted, and even though we came out of the session virtually unscathed, I was reminded how far we are from that idyllic world conference against racism.

On a more positive note, we were able to set up offline meetings both with the slapping panelist (who was actually quite articulate, insightful and open to dialogue) as well as many of the audience members, among them the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, a human rights activist from Australia and some Moroccan Berber human rights groups. There are loads of people at the NGO sessions who want to talk about their plight and fight for their rights. The cause is there for all to see; it is the forum that is damaged as the delegates from representing countries like Egypt, Australia and Morocco neglect to address human rights issues and instead stand upstairs in the plenary sessions engaging in fruitless political rhetoric.

The next session I attended was about combating racism through education. I was prepared if necessary to talk about the deplorable content of Palestinian children's textbooks, but was glad to find a room of people (mostly women, in contrast to other male dominated sessions) who simply wanted to share best practices in promoting tolerance and safety through education. The session was enlightening and it gave me great hope, reaffirming my belief that education, indeed, bridges divides and acts as a uniting force to create a more peaceful and secure world. I had the same very strong feelings when I attended an international conference in the UAE last year (perhaps I will have a chance to return to this thought at a later date, and an earlier hour).

I want to wrap up today with these optimistic thoughts of education and tolerance – but for honesty’s sake I will share that after I left the conference, I got a sneak peek at an anti-Israel demonstration that is scheduled to visit the UN tomorrow. The materials I saw were deeply disturbing and inciteful; I am anticipating waves at the conference and in the media tomorrow (today). More soon.

No comments: