David Weiner is a guest blogger for JewishJournal.com. He is currently in Geneva attending the Durban Review Conference (also referred to as Durban 2) as part of a delegation representing the American Jewish Committee, composed of roughly 15 young professionals.
Armed with his laptop, still camera, and flip video camera, David will be providing continuous updates and sharing his own thoughts and experiences from Durban 2.
The conference officially began today, and I spent most of the day in the General Assembly Hall. The morning featured formal speeches by Ban Ki-moon, Martin Uhomoibhi (President of HRC), and Navanethem Pillay (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights). However, everyone was waiting for 3:14 pm when Ahmadinejad would address the conference against racism.
Ahmadinejad gave the speech that we feared, but also expected. The European countries (except Norway) all walked out on the first mention of Israel being a racist state. A clown, who is now identified as being from the French Jewish Union, ran to the stage and threw rubber balls. Other protestors interrupted the speech on multiple occasions, shouting “Racist, Racist”, and were quickly escorted out of the hall.
What is the best way to respond to Ahmadinejad’s racist and dangerous statements? There were multiple views on display in Geneva.
By staying away from the conference, the US stayed true to its red lines – yet left a clear void at the conference to combat racism. By walking out during the speech, the EU made a dramatic statement and humiliated the speaker – yet left the hall represented only by sympathizers. By shouting and disrupting the speech, the protestors effectively turned the hall into a circus – yet one revealed to me afterward that she was embarrassed by her actions.
Norway had a different approach. The Norwegian Foreign Minister sat through the entire speech, and then spoke immediately following Ahmadinejad. He used the opportunity to respond and reject the hateful speech. He accused the Iranian leader of attempting to hijack the conference through using a message of hate to incite violence.
I sat through the entire speech. And through the entire speech, I bit my tongue and sat on my hands. I was pleased that the US and Germany didn’t dignify Ahmadinejad with their attendance. I was moved by the dramatic walkout by the European countries. And I was relieved that the atmosphere of the speech was more carnival than respectful international forum.
But I was also comforted by the Norway FM delivering a fiery response from the same podium as Ahmadinejad. While the US showed strength in staying away, Norway showed a different strength in sitting through the speech and immediately firing back.
There was one more notable walkout during the speech – the Palestinian delegates left the hall as well. I spoke with a member of the delegation shortly after the speech; he called Ahmadinejad’s address “not convenient” and “not balanced.” For me, this is the big event of the day – and many seasoned UN watchers with whom I shared this information were surprised. Maybe the best response to Ahmadinejad’s speech will be to find some common ground with other groups and change the combative atmosphere that Ahmadinejad hopes to create.