Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dramatic Durban Diplomacy

Today, everyone and their brother who has a blog seems to be writing about the dramatic events surrounding the President of Iran, Ahmadinejad's address to the UN conference against racism. Thoughts: A Buck Each will hop into this blogging bandwagon because it's an interesting subject, and because there are thoughts on it to be shared.

In a nutshell, this conference, intended to address global problems regarding racism was addressed by the Iranian president who, after being interrupted by protesters in clown wigs said amongst other things that "Israel was a "most cruel and oppressive, racist regime," which was created from the "pretext of Jewish suffering" during World War II..." At this, in a rare, dramatic diplomatic moment, on par with Adelai Stevenson's famous 'I know you understand me, don't wait for the translation' during the Cuban missile crisis, dozens of diplomats could be seen rising and streaming out of the room en masse.

Reaction to this spectacle was swift. The current president of the EU, the Czech Republic indicated they would not be sending their delegates back for the remainder of the conference while others made forceful statements calling Ahmadinejad's comments "shameful," "intolerable" and generally roundly criticizing them. Most notable perhaps is the statement released by Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General who released a statement which can be found in full here. In a nutshell, Ban Ki noted that he had warned the President not to be inflammatory, that this was a conference to combat intolerance, that divisiveness was unhelpful and that the UN has long since disavowed the Zionism=racism slander. As David Schraub (whose blog carries the full text) correctly points out, when the diplomatic niceties are filtered out of the Secretary General's comment, the message is about as scathing as it could be.

Ban Ki Moon's messaging was somewhat less nuanced than Navi Pillay's, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. While Ms. Pillay strongly condemned the content of Iran's statements she also argued that not only did he have a right to speak at the forum, but that delegates should not focus on this one intervention and that in any event, walking out of the room was not the best way to respond, that it would have been better to have gone on record correcting the Iranian President. With regards to being unable to stop Ahmadinejad from speaking, since he is a head of state and this was the UN, Ms. Pillay is likely correct. It ends there though. This was a speech by a head of state, the only one to speak at the conference. On the first day of an anti-racism conference, the tone was set by his hateful remarks. They may not be the focus of the conference, but they were an appetizer that leaves a sickening taste in ones mouth, ruining the meal. As for the 'correctness' of walking out, this too was the correct decision. The impressive sight of these diplomats streaming out of the room caused the President to pause. A clear message was sent to him that his views are unwelcome and so reprehensible that even though what he will say is predictable, it's not even worth hearing. Also, walking out does not preclude any state from going on the record with their comments, as they clearly have. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine that interventions at a conference like this one, would suffice to change the mind of a person like Ahmadinejad. His views seem so deeply entrenched and so contrary to widely available fact that it's unclear that anything could change them.

In Israel, the target country for much of Ahmadinejad's ramblings, his comments, notably that the Holocaust was a "pretext" for the creation of Israel (incidentally, look at the exact definition of the word pretext. It would be interesting to know if this is the exact meaning of the word used in Farsi. If so, and if Ahmadinejad knew this precise meaning, it almost implies that the Holocaust was staged so that Jews could have Israel) were particularly closely noted.

For starters, after the Swiss Head of State met with his Iranian counterpart in what was officially merely another display of Swiss neutrality, Israel recalled their Swiss ambassador. More significantly, however, is that fact that the night the speech was given in Geneva, Israel, and Jewish communities around the world, began their commemorations of Yom Ha'Shoah--Holocaust remembrance day. Both the Israeli Prime Minister and Presdident mentioned Ahmadinejad's comments and the conference itself in their remarks at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.

None of what took place today could really have been unexpected. In fact, earlier, when there was discussion of a reformed, more acceptable draft resolution to be produced by this conference, this very blog expressed concern that something exactly like this would happen. Ahmadinejad has never kept his views secret. Given that it would likely be impossible to prevent a head of state from addressing the UN, and given that it was known that he would speak and that his comments were predictable, it is interesting that the countries that walked out of the meeting had been there in the first place. They should have been able to predict that a walk out would take place if, after all, they knew that certain words would be a signal for them to leave. In this light then, this walkout appears to be a staged diplomatic drama. Something that was easily foreseeable and could meet the (mostly European States' who walked out) desire to be seen to be engaging and working with the world as well as their principled position to brook no hatred from the podium. In effect, this may have been the outcome foreseen from the moment the decision not to fully boycott the conference was made.

What is perhaps an even more chilling coincidence, is that on the day of Holocaust remembrance, and on the day that racism and hatred go forth from the podium of a conference intended to combat these very phenomenon, neo (and not so neo) Nazis everywhere are celebrating Hitler's birthday.

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