Posts Tagged ‘durban ii and united states’

Silencing the Breakers of Silence: UN Durban II Conference Threatened by Conflicts

April 21, 2009

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND Before asking him about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial speech here at the followup to the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism (Durban II), I first gave Nobel prize-winner, Elie Wiesel, my thanks. I thanked him not because of his condemnation of an opening speech in which the Iranian president called the holocaust a “dubious question”; I thanked holocaust survivor Wiesel because he provided us with one of the main slogans for combating past and recent racism in the United States: “No Human Being is Illegal.” After he shook my hand and after I offered, in the most Spanish-inflected French possible, my gratitude on behalf of the Central Americans who first launched the “No Human Being is Illegal” campaign back when the United States denied them political asylum and refugee status in the 1980’s, Wiesel smiled and reminisced,”Yes, I gave that term to the Sanctuary movement. It was wrong to deny them (Salvadorans and Guatemalans) (legal) status. I was happy to support the cause.”

As one who dedicated a significant part of his adult life to the cause of Central Americans, meeting Wiesel served as a deeply personal reminder of the profoundly serious issues being discussed here. But as one dedicated to the global movement for migrants rights, which has, in many countries, also adopted his elegantly simple coinage, I’m also gravely concerned about how the focus on Ahmadinejad and the boycott of the Geneva conference supported by Wiesel, the United States and the powerful minority of countries backing the Israeli government is distracting the world from one of its most urgent facts: the exponential rise in xenophobia, hatred and racism around the world, especially following the exponential decline in economic stability triggered by the global greed and corruption centered in the United States.

Were Iran, Israel and other players involved in this display of geopolitical drama not so viscerally divided, someone attending the conference might reach the conclusion that their high-profile conflicts are a subterfuge designed to mask over and disguise the most damaging and deadly racial and ethnic consequences brought on by the depredations and failures of western governments – and the “blue eyed bankers” in the U.S. and other countries recently denounced by Brazilian President Lula and others.

Speaking with some from among the thousands of passionately committed and very smart participants from around the globe attending Durban II, I couldn’t help but hear the grave disappointment and even anger at the damaging, even catastrophic effect that both the the boycott and President Ahmadinejad’s speech are having on issues discussed throughout the conference.  For example, lost in the global media’s almost exclusive focus on Ahmadinejad’s speech and on the walkout by a small minority of mostly white Western diplomats, are concerns of the overwhelmingly non-white majority attending the conference, attendees like Yousif Aboh.

“These conflicts (around the speech and the boycott) only help governments like Sudan’s to continue racist practices that push people out, that starve people and that attack and kill people,” said a very somber Aboh, who works with Darfur Peace and Development, a non-governmental organization which is the only Darfuri-led organization still operating in Darfur. “I’m here to get support for the people still living a great crisis in Darfur- people without food and water because of discrimination-and these kinds of controversies make my work difficult to impossible because many in the media don’t want to talk about anything else except Israel and Iran.”

Aboh and others attending Durban II also expressed deep disappointment at the Obama Administration’s decision not to attend the conference.  Non-attendance was roundly condemned as a very dangerous act that communicates the wrong message to racists, xenophobes and genocidal governments around the world. “Their (the Obama Administration) not attending tells governments like Sudan’s that their dangerous racist policies are not a priority,” said Aboh, who also condemned the government of Iran for its support of the Sudanese government.

For his part, Khalil Shahabi, an economist at the Tehran-based Insitute for Sceintific and Political Research, agreed with Aboh about the Obama Administration but also defended the Iranian government against Aboh, Wiesel and other critics, “Our President is the only head of state to come. It’s important that he tell the world about how Israeli racism kills innocent people in Gaza, including fifteen percent who were children.” When I asked him about the Iranian President’s statements about the situation in Palestine, Wiesel told me he thought Ahmadinejad had done “dishonor to his people, who have such a rich history. What arrogance he has to come here to a UN conference on racism only to express such hatred.”

Largely lost in the largely simplistic media coverage of both the conference and the speech by President Ahmadinejad were the more nuanced discussions taking place inside and outside the stately halls of the U.N. For example, Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, delivered a speech indirectly criticizing Iran, Israel and the United States. “We who have made a point of defending freedom of expression cannot opt for non-attendance as a strategy, leaving the floor to precisely those who hold opposite views” said  Støre  “We will not surrender the floor of the United Nations to the extremists.The President of Iran has just exercised that human right. He did so – I believe – in a way that threatens the very focus of this conference.”

Such an inauspicious start to an event of such global import inspires fears; fears that the specific conflicts involving only a few of the world’s many actors may detract from communicating the powerful spirit motivating most of those attending the Durban II conference. This spirit was best captured by Wiesel, when he said many years ago, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Obama’s Durban II Boycott & the Perils of a “Post-Racial” Planet

March 2, 2009

At a time when racial conflict and discrimination are on the rise around the world, the Administration of the world’s first black U.S. president will not be attending the world’s most important conference on race and racism.

In what may signal a dangerous new, “post-racial” approach to global race relations, President Barack Obama’s Administration announced that it will not attend the second World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Geneva next April. According to this article in the New York Times, the Administration will boycott the conference to protest what it deems the unfair equation of Zionism with racism in the outcome documents of the first conference held in Durban, South Africa, and now the second conference, also known as “Durban II, as well .” Other concerns cited by Administration officials, some of whom recently attended preparatory meetings in Geneva,in their justification of the boycott include a proposal to place restrictions on the defamation of religions and any language calling for reparations for slavery. According to the Times article, one of the primary reasons for the Obama Administration’s decision was that “Israel and some American Jewish groups urged a boycott of the April conference, and several close American allies, including Canada.”

Praised by groups that lobbied against Durban II like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), whose leaders applauded the U.S. decision, “for refusing to participate in a process that would in any way brand Israel as a racist country,” the Obama Adminsitration’s boycott comes at the worst possible time for a planet facing rapidly increasing levels of recession-inspired racism, xenophobia and hatred.

Increasing numbers of experts report that most continents – Europe, Africa, Asia – are seeing exponential growth in hate crimes, ethnic tensions and other manifestations of the racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance, the kind on intolerance that will be discussed at the Durban II Conference. And in the Américas, the very palpable rise in racial tensions, hate crimes and other discrimination are well illustrated by events here in the “post-racial” United States: the NY Post Chimpanzee cartoon scandal, the U.S. visit (including a film screening in Congress) by Euro-racist Geert Wilders and the massive protests against the racial profiling, humiliation and other practices of Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, to name a few taking place in the United States. And these were only the events that the Obama Administration was silent about this past week.

The Obama Administration’s silence on both these racial incidents and on such fundamentally racial -and global-problems as the “drug war”, criminal justice reform and immigrant detention contrasts with the much-lauded statements on race by Attorney General Eric Holder. In statements made to coincide with the start of Black History Month, Holder called the U.S. “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussion of race .

Apparently, as indictaed by Obama Administration’s boycott of the Durban II conference, Mr. Holder’s statements are equally applicable to the global discussion of race. Consider, for example, Mr.Holder-and the Obama Administration’s- relative silence on reversing the abject failure and tragedy that is the global and domestic “war on drugs” (he’s actually in favor of pursuing it more intensely) and the unprecedented levels of racialized imprisonment it entails. In the face of the radicalization of racial hatred that is afoot throghout the world, both the Durban response and Holder’s Black History Month statements are beginning to sound like the oh so many hollow and jaded “Si Se Puede”‘s and other ethnic, racial “History Month”-like slogans designed to gain favor among former minorities, all the while pursuing right-of-center criminal justice policies that devastate these same communities.

And with its very dangerous boycott of Durban II in response to pressure from the very powerful Israel Lobby , the Obama Admnistration may be giving the green light to governments and other groups practicing their own brand of racial discrimination, promoting hatred and other forms of discrimination. While much of the media is discussing the U.S. boycott, most of these reports neglect to the mention the near universal condemnation of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, which United Nations General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto likened to apartheid last November:

“More than twenty years ago we in the United Nations took the lead from civil society when we agreed that sanctions were required to provide a non-violent means of pressuring South Africa. Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel.”

Rather than join the rest of the world in Durban and in condemning the killing and discrimination on the part of the Israeli and other governments-including our own-, Obama’s boycott reflects his choice to pursue the more dangerous path to dealing with race, racism and discrimination: symbolism at the expense of real changes to very devastating policies. Such are the perils of our increasingly post-racial presidency in a racially-troubled world.

Political choices like the Durban decision or the blind eye turned to the indiscriminate killing of and discrimination against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank make one wonder if the Obama Administration has also chosen to become the black face of empire.