A boycott without vindication

SID, 1 July 2009

In 2001 the United Nations organised a World Conference on Racism in Durban. It was quite a turbulent conference. Developing countries had criticised Western countries about slavery, Apartheid and the injustice done to the Palestinian people. However, the final document of the conference had been adopted unanimously. The US had stayed away, which was not uncommon for the US during those years, but all participating countries had agreed. No country later on had distanced itself from this agreement. The negotiations had been difficult, but in the end all parties had showed willingness to compromise. As a matter of fact the final document was quite good. The United Nations had once more proven itself as the principal universal world platform, where countries could discuss a great variety of principles, norms, values and basic rights, and reach consensus. Such a consensus can help containing religious or ethnic conflicts. This would be of great importance, for the world as a whole, the South as well as the North, the West and the rest.

Such a consensus should regularly be preserved and modified. So, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to hold a review conference in Geneva, in 2009. The pre-negotiations were difficult again. For this reason many Western countries decided to step aside. However, they did so before the conference had started. This is wrong. Difficult pre-negotiations do not justify a pull out, in particular not when the previous experience has shown that a consensus should be within reach. In the end it turned out that also in Geneva developing countries were wiling to compromise. Once again it was proven that it is possible to have serious negotiations within the UN, resulting in a common agreement.

Some speeches held during the conference, such as the speech by President Ahmadinehad of Iran, were quite provocative. At the request of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon the President had moderated his tone, but, in the view of Ban, not sufficiently. So, the UNSG publicly distanced himself from his speech. And the Norwegian Foreign minister, speaking directly after Ahmadinehad, responded in terms not to be misunderstood.

This is how the UN works. Countries should discus, debate, confront each other, listen, negotiate and, in the end, reach a compromise and agree. Staying away is not constructive. It is arrogant, hypocritical or spineless.

In my view the text agreed in Geneva on “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” is even better than the Durban text. Many diplomats were afraid that at this conference Israel would become a special target because of its policies with regard to the Palestinians in general and Gaza in particular. For some western countries this fear was the overriding reason to stay away, out of protest. However, this protest was premature and empty. The final document does not refer to Israel at all. Anti-Semitism is being condemned explicitly and put on one line with, so-called, anti-Arabism, Islamofobia and Christianofobia.

The Geneva document is condemning genocide unequivocally. The Holocaust is being mentioned: “It should never be forgotten”. The declaration also denounces derogatory stereotyping and stigmatization of persons based on their religion or belief as well as of minorities in general, indigenous people, immigrants, foreigners and refugees. Also the advocacy of racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination is being denounced.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is being declared essential in a democratic and pluralistic society, without any limitation. On the contrary: the declaration stresses the positive role these rights can play in the fight against discrimination.

These and other statements should serve as a yardstick for all countries, Western as well as Southern, the Netherlands as well as Zimbabwe, India as well as the UK. Countries boycotting this conference have missed an opportunity to promote non-discrimination as well as freedom of opinion all over the world. As a matter of fact, by staying away, these countries have further undermined the authority of the UN.

These countries have also withdrawn from possible criticism by other countries on increasing racism, xenophobia and intolerance in the Western world. Western countries are used to criticize developing countries for violating principles of democracy and human rights, including freedom of speech. However, they shirk being criticised themselves. In fact they declare themselves being above the law.

Such a position cannot be justified at all. The recent elections for the European parliament have resulted in a strengthening of parties at the extreme right of the political spectrum, including parties that call for a banning of the Koran and for halting immigration of Muslims and deporting people for the only reason that they are Muslims and therefore should be considered a threat to security. This is a clear example of religious discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.

It was high time that the UN decided to hold world wide debates on discrimination. The UN Charter of Human Rights needs to be reconfirmed regularly, by new generations and their leaders in all countries.