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Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights"
Photo by UN Photo (Jean-Marc Ferre)

Secretary-General, Human Rights Commissioner Condemn Ahmedinajad

Remarks, in Opening of U.N. Racism Conference

By George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, October 1, 2009

[First Published April 20, 2009]  Both Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navenethem Pillay were extremely quick to condemn the words of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delivered on the first day of the U.N.’s Durban Review Conference on Racism. Ahmadinejad, who had delivered a tirade calling Israel a racist state, was greeted also with numerous European delegates’ departures from the hall, in response to his highly offensive remarks.
The Conference, called to review progress in the eight years since the original conclave in South Africa, had been widely expected to turn into another festival of “Israel-bashing”, as that  original one had been. That conference, officially the “Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance”, had produced a relatively mild “outcome document’ Its most extreme provision was a short reference to “…the Palestinian people under foreign occupation”.

But there was a parallel N.G.O. (Non-Governmental Organizations) conference in Durban, which was little noted at that time. At that parallel conference, speaker after speaker came to the rostrum to condemn Israel, call it a racist and oppressive state…and say precious little about the real problems of racial discrimination in the world. The international Jewish community—along with the rest of the world—were largely “caught napping” at Durban. They had little expected such a tidal wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic tirades. Confronted with such outbursts, the delegates of both Israel and the United States finally departed. They (and many Europeans and others) decided to boycott the follow-up conference, this week in Geneva. This conference would not have a parallel N.G.O. meeting, but was widely expected to turn into another “Israel-bashing festival”, just the same. Thus, the stage was set for President Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel (and—some would say—anti-Semitic) outburst.

The Conference opened on Monday morning with opening statements from both the Secretary-General and High Commissioner Pillay. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said  that “That time is now [to give the virtues of tolerance and respect for diversity their fullest due…”]. Noting that “The politics of xenophobia is on the rise”, and that “New technologies proliferate hate-speech”, he asserted that “Discrimination does not go away by itself. It must be challenged”. This was in line with sentiments Ban expressed to me at a press encounter last summer: He seemed determined to actually accomplish something to combat racism, and the other scourges in the original Conference’s title.

High Commissioner Pillay, until recently a Judge on the U.N.’s International Criminal Court, said that “Racism and racial discrimination attack the very foundations of a person’s dignity…”. And—mindful of those countries boycotting the Conference—she noted that “I have repeatedly called for the full participation of all U.N. member states in this process”. Hoping for the Conference’s success despite the boycott., she wished that those countries “…who, to my deep regret, did not participate would still join efforts to make tangible changes…”. “The victims of racism”, she said, “deserve no less”.

Ahmadinejad’s address came at the beginning of the afternoon session on Monday (April 20th –ironically, the 120th birthday of none other that Adolf Hitler). The “victorious powers” of World War II were said to have “…resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless, on the pretext of Jewish sufferings…”. Western governments and the United States, he said, “…had committed themselves to defend these racist perpetrators of genocide…”. Referring to the boycotting countries, he described their action as “…a true indication of supporting the blatant example of racism”. It should be noted that an exact English text of the President’s address has not been openly released. It had not—as of this writing—appeared on his website, so that the above quotations were taken from the U.N.’s own Summary Document. Nevertheless the flavor of Ahmadinejad’s delusional view—and his total non-appreciation of ancient Jewish history—quite clearly comes through.

Both Secretary-General Ban and High Commissioner Pillay were clearly shocked by Ahmadinejad’s delusional, hateful and inflammatory rhetoric, and both released statements, very clearly condemning it. This marks an unusual departure for two U.N. officials, censuring the words of the Head of State of a [founding] member state of the United Nations. Ban said “I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian President to accuse, divide and even incite”. And he noted that “This makes it significantly more difficult to build constructive solutions to the very real problem of racism”. And he suggested that “We must all turn away from such a message in both form and substance”.

High Commissioner Pillay delivered a statement that was somewhat shorter, and—if anything—stronger. While she was critical of those boycotted the conference, rather than stay top “reply and correct”, her message was clear and unequivocal:

“I utterly deplore the speech of the President of Iran delivered this afternoon at the Durban Review Conference against racism.

 I condemn the use of a U.N. forum for political grandstanding. I find this utterly objectionable.

Much of his speech was clearly beyond the scope of the Conference. It also clearly went against the long-standing U.N. position adopted by the General    Assembly with respect to equating Zionism with racism”. (Note: The notorious “Zionism is Racism” Resolution was repealed by the General Assembly on
16 December 1991.)

 While a few spectators applauded his remarks, vaster numbers were appalled, and most of the European delegates walked out of the Hall. On Tuesday, the Conference overwhelmingly adopted its outcome document, which had been worked on and re-worked, so as to delete all offensive references to Israel and other objects of intended hatred. This left some observers wondering what would be accomplished, in the remaining three days of the Conference.


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