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Exclusive Coverage from DURBAN 2 - DAY 1: Arrival

by David Weiner

April 20, 2009 | 5:47 am

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.

For background information on the conference, please refer to the official UN website or AJC’s web site.

Monday, 1:30 AM

I arrived in Geneva around 10:30 AM on Sunday, and met up with the rest of the American Jewish Committee delegation.  The city couldn’t feel more tranquil, which is odd considering Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is preparing to welcome the Durban Review Conference at 3:14 pm the next day.  Iran is one of the Human Rights Committee member states in charge of organizing this conference to combat racial discrimination. 

As I get ready for bed, the breaking news on states not attending the conference comes fast and furious.  The United States officially pulled out, and we got late word that Germany is also out.  The main issues at play remain language in the outcome document that could be used to suppress free speech, as well as endorsement of the 2001 outcome document which casts the Israeli/Palestinian struggle in a racial light – rather than a nationalist or political conflict.

Reflections on the Day

Here are some of the debates I witnessed at programs during the day:

Should states engage the process or withdraw?

At a UN Watch sponsored summit in the afternoon, this debate was raging.  Some argued that the US was correct in sticking to its red lines, offering the US credibility in the future.  Others argued that if the EU were to pull out, then states like Iran would control the agenda of the conference.

How far should the right of free speech extend?

A panel, including first amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams and European activists and politicians, revealed some differences in the American and European approaches – especially as they attempted to draw the line at language that incites violence.  (Think of how the US and Europe differ on the treatment of those expressing public support for Nazi ideas.)  Abrams lamented during the panel, “Are we really sitting here talking about adopting a document that makes it illegal to say something bad about religion?  This is very sad.”  Abrams pointed out that the current language in the outcome document is a blatant attempt by the block of 57 Islamic states to stifle criticism of Islam.
-  What constitutes Islamaphobia?  In the context of drawing lines of free speech, I heard an impassioned presentation by an Islamic activist who asked: If criticizing the religion in any way is labeled Islamaphobic, then I am an Islamaphobe. 


Reflections in Lake Geneva

At the concluding session at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy organized by UN Watch, the mood became darker.  Ambassador Zimeray, the French Ambassador for Human Rights, said that the feelings of Durban 1 are returning as we get set to begin Durban 2.  He said the scapegoating of Jews is “reflected in the waters of Lake Geneva.”  Targeting Israel is again being used to shift attention from the important issues of racism.

An analyst from the Heritage Foundation:  An attempt to create a unified standard for fighting racism has turned into damage control

Ambassador Moses, Chair of UN Watch:  “The cause of human rights has been hijacked.”

Gearing up for the Conference….

Our delegation had dinner at the Chabad Centre with the European Union of Jewish Students.  We numbered over 100 and there were several speeches in preparation for the days to come.  (I will post a separate entry on this dinner – not to describe the pasta, but to share the many conversations with young European Jews and the speeches.)

Engagement…..

Ultimately, the point of this conference is to attempt to transcend rights beyond political borders.  In order to succeed, I believe that the key is to engage – engage in the process, engage with people who are implementing fresh ideas and programs, engage and understand the victims, and even engage those who might not share the same views.

It’s this last form of engagement that I feel is the most challenging, yet potentially the most critical in creating change.  How can I contribute to this process?  Will the tranquil setting of Geneva change once the official conference begins?  What will Ahmadinejad say on the opening day of the conference, the same day that Yom Hashoah will be commemorated with an event featuring Elie Wiesel?

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