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The UN's Platform for Racism

Rarely in the history of world politics have so many nations with so little interest in democracy pledged to uphold so many democratic ideals.

12:00 AM, Apr 22, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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On the eve of the United Nations World Conference on Racism, Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered a sharp warning about the problem of racially motivated hate speech. She recalled the effect of radio broadcasts in Rwanda, 15 years ago this month, which dehumanized its Tutsi population as "cockroaches" and set the stage for genocide. "We should not underestimate the power of incitement to hatred to fuel violence, conflict and even genocide," she told delegates in Geneva. "Hate speech and racist insults will be banned at the UN conference against racism and intolerance."

Hate speech and racist insults, of course, were not banned--they were exalted. On Monday, the day after Pillay's vacuous pledge, the United Nations offered a prime-time platform to the Holocaust-denying Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If his fitful diatribe had a central thread, it was this: The mere existence of Israel--"those racist perpetrators of genocide"--is itself an assault on the conscience of mankind. According to Ahmadinejad, Israel's influence, global and conspiratorial, must be rooted out and eliminated. "Efforts must be made to put an end to the abuse by Zionists and their political and international supporters," he warned. "Governments must be encouraged and supported in their fights aimed at eradicating this barbaric racism." Arab delegates broke into applause.

That was too much for the European Union members in attendance. In a rare moment of moral clarity, twenty-three EU delegates walked out of the assembly room in protest. The Czech foreign ministry, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, complained bluntly: "We cannot allow, through our presence, the legitimization of absolutely unacceptable anti-Israeli attacks." (All EU members, except the Czech Republic, returned to the conference this week.) Nine other nations--Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States--boycotted the event in advance. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded exasperated, having earlier warned the Iranian president that the UN General Assembly had repudiated resolutions equating Zionism with racism. "I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian President to accuse, divide and even incite," he said. "This is the opposite of what this conference seeks to achieve."

Crestfallen UN officials have no one to blame but themselves. The pitiful outcome, that a summit on racism would in fact promote racism, was virtually guaranteed by the UN process that brokered it.

The Geneva conference is a sequel to the bitterly divisive 2001 event in Durban, South Africa, where delegates harangued Israel while omitting the most egregious examples of race-based discrimination and violence. The discredited UN Human Rights Council, manipulated by its Muslim members, framed much of this week's agenda. Like the previous gathering, the "Durban II" conference has mostly sidestepped the problems of racism in countries such as Burma, China, Egypt, India, and Sudan.

The invitation to Iran's president, the only head of state in attendance, confirmed the cynical hijacking of the event. Within 24 hours of Ahmadinejad's racist rant, delegates produced an outcome document with 143 affirmations and action items to combat "manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance." It was a transparent public relations effort at damage control.

What is striking about this latest UN declaration is its tribute to democratic principles in the fight against race hatred. Among other items, the document: condemns racist legislation and policies as "incompatible with democracy"; affirms political equality and nondiscrimination as "fundamental principles" of human rights law; emphasizes the importance of an "independent and impartial judiciary"; asks governments to "lift any impediments" to the work of human rights activists; and endorses "the right to freedom of opinion and expression" in overcoming discrimination and intolerance.

Amos Wako, the UN official presiding over the conference, calls the 16-page declaration an "historic outcome." That's not far from the mark, if measured by the cosmic gulf between the document's aspirations and the actual policies of its 100 or more participating states. Some of the signatories are counted among the world's worst human-rights abusers. Many severely limit freedom of speech and religion; others uphold legal and judicial systems that criminalize political and religious dissent. Rarely in the history of world politics have so many nations with so little interest in democracy pledged to uphold so many democratic ideals.