Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A student's experience at Durban II

Although a little overdue, I wanted to post a first hand account of a student's experience at the Durban Review Conference at the United Nations in Geneva, aka, Durban II.
Montrealer Merav Fima recently participated in the conference as a delegate of the World Union of Jewish Students. Merav, who is currently living in Jerusalem and pursuing a Master's degree at Bar-Ilan University, shared her story.

It was our first time venturing into the United Nations. Naïve and idealistic, we were excited for the opportunity to meet with dignitaries and get a glimpse of one of the world’s most prestigious and established institutions. We did not know how quickly our admiration of the United Nations as a shrine of human rights would be dissolved.

Just hours before the opening of the Durban Review Conference, advertised as a gathering of the world’s nations to promote human rights and combat racism, a group of students representing the World Union of Jewish Students and the National Union of Israeli Students encountered the Palestinian Ambassador and Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations. This chance meeting outside the Salle des Assemblées was unusual for Israelis, who rarely encounter Palestinians face-to-face. As students, we were at liberty to informally interact with the Palestinian representatives and engage in candid conversation.

The Deputy Ambassador, Imad, a member of the Fatah party educated in France, claimed that “diplomats abroad are like you and me; they are good people and want an end to the conflict.” According to him, this can only be achieved through dialogue in international forums such as the United Nations. Consequently, he asserted that the Israeli government “was wrong in boycotting the Durban Review Conference.”

We questioned him on a variety of subjects, from national security to religious fanaticism. Imad was unwilling to address the issues of Hamas and Iran, insisting that “the main problem is occupation.” Yet, he acknowledged that “extremism on both sides must be curtailed” and that Hamas’ growing popularity in the West Bank is “really scary.” His arguments were often compelling, rendering us silent. Though we could not agree with him, we were glad that he was eager to engage in discussion. The conversation was civil and perhaps overly diplomatic.
Imad ended the interview by shaking our hands and commanding us to “continue what you are doing.”

Just two hours later, we watched from the same spot as representatives of 23 European countries exited the Salle des Assemblées in protest of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hateful speech, labeling Israel a “racist, repressive regime.” They were greeted by a cheering crowd of hundreds of Jewish students from around the world, with noses painted red in identification with the three French students who had interrupted Ahmadinejad’s speech by throwing red clown noses at him.

Supported by such valiant warriors for human rights as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Prof. Alan Dershowitz, we protested silently, holding signs reading “Shame on Ahmadinejad” and “Shame on the UN.” The protest would cost us our accreditation to the United Nations, but it was worth it for the realization that, with some initiative and courage, even inexperienced youths can influence the outcome of historic events. Indeed, Ahmadinejad later sent a formal letter to the United Nations complaining about disruptions during his speech. Meanwhile, in an address to his own people, he portrayed his appearance at the United Nations as a success.

The two Palestinian delegates left the Salle des Assemblées toward the end of Ahmadinejad's speech, condemned by Ambassador Ibrahim Khraishi as “not balanced.” While Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust and asserted that the West has used it to justify Israel’s repression of the Palestinians, Imad had earlier told us that it was his delegation that had fought to maintain the clause calling for the commemoration of the Holocaust in the outcome document. In his own words, “the Holocaust is not a Middle Eastern issue and must be commemorated as a violation of human rights, regardless of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Despite the official Palestinian position, embodied by the Palestinian Ambassadors to the United Nations, Mohammad Faraj Al-Ghul, a Palestinian Minister belonging to Hamas, praised Ahmadinejad’s speech and stated that it “delighted the hearts of the peace-loving and liberal nations.” Watching the short, gesticulating Iranian President through the narrow windows of the Salle des Assemblées doors, I realized a shortcoming of democracy: a majority vote empowering a genocidal madman seeking the destruction of a UN member state. I then understood how, ironically, terms like “peace-loving” and “liberal” can be manipulated to describe those nations farthest away from such ideals, while those most committed to them are labeled as “war criminals” and “violators of human rights.”

The Palestinian Ambassadors’ opposition to Ahmadinejad’s speech was rooted in deep political and diplomatic considerations. Yet, I wonder what impact our encounter with them may have had. We did, after all, offer a much-needed listening ear, demonstrating the future generation’s potential to attain peace through civil dialogue.


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