Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thoughts on Durban II From Someone who was There

Below is an e-mail my friend David Grossman sent me after spending time at the Durban II Anti-Racism conference.

""I feel angry... I feel uncomfortable being here today."

Esther Mujawayo was sitting at a conference table in the basement Room XXVII of Building E in the United Nations compound in Geneva. It had been over 15 years since, in 1993, she named her child "Peace," fully expecting the worst of the Rwandan massacres to be over. A UN contingent with 2500 troops was already partially deployed in her country. She thought she and her family would be moving on with their lives. And yet a year later, over 800,000 people would be killed in 3 months. Her family would be murdered almost entirely, leaving only her and one daughter to survive.

Esther was speaking at a "side event" at the Durban Review Conference (DRC). While official state contingents were elsewhere, NGOs and other organizers assembled a series of speakers - including genocide survivors and witnesses like Esther - to tell audiences about the most pressing issues of racism and intolerance of the day. These included the genocide in Darfur, the execution of children and torture of political prisoners in Iran, and the denial of necessary aid in Zimbabwe ("the cheapest way to carry out a genocide").

Esther told her audience about a "miracle" in Rwanda. A boy was slashed, his eye gouged, and left for dead. His injuries were so severe that no doctor in Rwanda could help him. With complicated surgeries and rehabilitation in Europe, he was - years later - able to return to Rwanda.

When he returned, the man who originally assaulted him was still there. The man confronted him and threatened him again. The victim was forced to leave his home once more, and seek safety back in Europe.

Victims who spoke at many of the side events and "counter-conferences" shared a recognizable trait: cynicism. Esther is now, thankfully, a happy and fulfilled person; she is a psychologist working with patients suffering from genocidal trauma. But she is rightfully angry at the UN and the rest of the world for failing her, her family, and the victims of Rwanda. She tells us that she does not seek violent revenge against those who harmed her, but that when she smiles, she thinks to herself that her happiness acts as punishment for those who wanted her dead.

Gibreil Hamid is a Darfurian trying to get the genocide in his country to stop. A quiet man with an imposing frame, there were tears in Gibreil's eyes when he said: "People ask 'how long will it be like this?' Really, I have no answer..."

The symbolic grandfather of these survivors is Elie Wiesel. He spoke to an audience of thousands in the Place des Nations in front of the UN, in a moving Holocaust commemoration ceremony that took place on the same day Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke as an invited guest at the DRC. Explaining how he had more optimism in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust than he does now, Wiesel said simply: "The world has learned nothing." And in response to those who seek to draw meaning out of the Holocaust, he implored: "Antisemitism did not die in the Holocaust. The victims did." Antisemitism, he confidently believes, will never die.

This cynicism is more than a product of the genocides these survivors lived through. It is the product of a world that stands back while the genocide occurs. When she says, "I have problems with forgiveness," Esther contextualizes her comment not by calling out her family's murderers, but by expressing how it should have been possible for the international community to act so the victims could still be alive. Indeed Esther - who campaigns for victims of the Rwandan genocide to be offered help in putting their lives back together - and Gibreil - who knows that atrocity continues unabated in his homeland - are confronted with the reality of international inaction in their daily lives. Listening to his words, it is hard to believe that Wiesel is not haunted by it as well.

That said, because their voices were heard this week - even if not at the official DRC itself - there may be room for (very) cautious optimism. There is the distinct hope - if not expectation - that Durban II will be remembered years down the line less as a sequel to Durban I than as a conference with its own narrative -- Geneva I. Eight years ago, at the original conference in South Africa, the narrative of the conference was dominated by the antisemitism of the NGO forum; last week, in Switzerland, police intervened when antisemitic materials were distributed and offenders were thrown out of the conference.

Most important, many democracies drew a line in the sand at "Durban II." With Canada leading the way, states such as Italy, Germany, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and others boycotted the conference entirely, fearing - and through their actions helping prevent - a repeat of Durban I. 23 European countries and organizations walked out when President Ahmadinejad began repeating antisemitic tropes in his address, and the Czech Republic never returned.

Much had clearly changed since Durban I, which occurred in (pre-9/11) 2001. Events seeking to remedy not only the antisemitism of Durban I, but also the original conference's manifest inability to study the true struggles of the day, were held. Jewish groups helped organize a rally for Darfur as all participants chanted "Never Again." The next day, a survivor from Darfur who escaped to Israel spoke at a parallel conference, and then joined Darfurian protesters at the pro-Israel rally that followed.

It's still hard to tell whether the struggle for human rights took a step forward or not in Durban II. But at the very least, it didn't seem to take a step back."

Thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with me and allowing me to post them on my blog.


shaya said...

you might find this interesting..

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Shaya, thanks for the comment, the link and sorry for the delayed reply.

I agree, Canada, the Tories, and Harper got this one right. I'm not really usually a fan of our current PM or of his party, but I was on board with this one. On the other hand, Liberals like Cotler were also pushing for the same thing. I think only the NDP and maybe the Bloc were opposed to boycotting. You can correct me on that one if need be.

I wonder what the diplomatic equivalent of "I told you so..." is.