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The lively debate over Canada’s refusal to participate in the United Nations Durban 2 anti-racism conference

April 21, 2009

Or not.

From The National Post:

Today should be a proud moment for Canada, and Canadians. Canada was the first country to declare it would not attend the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, known as Durban II because it was meant as a follow-up to an earlier version in Durban, South Africa, that collapsed into an anti-Israel hatefest.

From The Globe and Mail:

Although many Western representatives walked out in protest against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech, the decision to attend in the first place showed a lack of foresight on the part of their countries’ leaders…Canada was merely ahead of the curve.

I’m saddened by the lack of real dissenting opinions on this issue, because of a few facts:

  • Whether we like or agree with it, there are many vocal “world leaders” who currently believe Israel should be singled out for condemnation because of its treatment of Palestinians.
  • Whether we like or agree with it, many of these same world leaders have very different ideas about religious freedom, and feel anxious about blasphemy and the defamation of Islam.

We can walk away from as many conferences as we want without changing those two basic facts. Add a few other facts, like the need for a global effort to fight poverty, meet environmental challenges and, hell, even the threat of terrorism, and the schism between the “West” and the “Muslim world” becomes deeply troubling. And I’m not sure Canada’s decision looks so laudable.

I’m frightened by the anxiety people have about doing anything that might be seen to condone terrorism or extremism. I’ve noticed that the discourse around the Somali pirates is plagued by the same problems as all the post 9-11/war on terror discourse –  any suggestion that we should look at root causes immediately gets characterized as justificatory or pro-terrorist/anti-US. This is scary, because it shouldn’t be controversial to say that stopping something requires finding out what truly caused it in the first place – and to say that most political and social phenomena have complex causes at their roots.

It seems to me that the signal we’re sending by walking out of Durban isn’t that we’re anti-extremism, but rather that we’re not willing to engage if we don’t like what’s going to be said, which only deepens the perception that the West needs to control the agenda and exert its hegemony or it won’t participate in the international community. If it was me, and I knew racist and untrue things like those in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech were going to be said, I would see that as an even better reason to take part, so I could counter his claims and be a force for dialogue and reconciliation – things I still believe are possible in the very long term, but only if we don’t start vacating the venues where they can take place.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2009 2:54 pm

    sad that everyone is so skeptical about the value of UN conferences now – sadder yet (for me) that i’m as skeptical as all of you, despite what i said in my post. i don’t believe that if canada had attended durban II it would have magically transformed into a productive dialogue. i still believe that acting like our decision not to attend was a triumph is short-sighted and disappointing.

    like i said in my post (and like many of you echoed here) the challenges of hatred, racism, anti-semitism aren’t going away – so nor should we. i believe there are few occasions when a boycott is better than constructive engagement. and i know you do too shauna! 😉

  2. nmboudin permalink*
    April 30, 2009 9:42 pm

    Hi Reilly,

    Great post, a real thinker. Those are powerful arguments that progressive governments needed to be there to at least voice dissent against the scapegoat agenda. I believe attending the conference in this spirit does not equal condoning terrorism or intolerance and can serve a real purpose.

    Perhaps, dialogue could have been created, but I have my doubts. Dialogue was the premise of Durban, but it devolved horribly, and it was the debacle it became in spite of its worthy premise that brought a sense foreboding on the following forum.

    Though I am a believer in trying again, I can understand why some nations felt the need to avoid round two. Though I am no international-caliber diplomat, I have tried to engage closed-minded people in dialogue on several occasions. Everyone should try this, because it will help us all understand the sense of futility, the frustration of trying to open the door just a crack, to attempt to use reason against the obfuscation of immovable hatred. Sometimes those situations feel pointless, and perhaps that is a feeling something that those who opted out felt.

  3. marakardasnelson permalink*
    April 27, 2009 4:47 am

    Reilly, I think this is a great post. Although I must admit that I’m a little fatigued by news of the Durban conference. News clips about the U.S. and Durban, and then Canada and Durban, and then Ahmadinejad and Durban. I agree that this is all important on the world stage, but not any more than any other politicking and shoulder-rubbing is important. I think that this second conference was tokenistic at best. While I’m troubled by the actions of Canada and the U.S. and some of the speeches made, in reality it really wouldn’t have mattered what any country did at this conference. In reality racism still prevails throughout North America and the world. Obviously how the U.S. and Canada behave at such conferences is important for headlines and photo shoots, but not with regards to how we actually (and if we actually) combat racism. I feel fatigued both by my cynicism towards the conference and news of the conference itself. Really, at the end of the day, shouldn’t we expect more than our leaders to simply attend–or not attend–such a conference? Doesn’t it matter more what they do the rest of the year?

  4. canworldjon permalink*
    April 24, 2009 3:52 pm

    Whatever usefulness Durban might have had, I think it is a spent force as a means to combat racism in the world. Moreso than any country or stakeholders, it was human rights groups who were the true losers with the failures and problems of Durban I. This makes it even more inexplicable that planners decided to plan the conference for the same setting, thus calling it Durban II, such that (a) detractors could easily say it would be “more of the same” (hey it’s part II of the same story!); and (b) those who believed in anti-racism as an international initiative would have a harder time selling the thing to less enthusiastic international partners.

    Then again, the Durban II chair is Muammar Gaddafi. I guess having a guy like that head things up is handy to drive expectations to subterranean levels.

  5. April 22, 2009 8:30 pm

    BTW, there’s an interesting perspective on the underlying reasons behind certain countries’ boycott of Durban II on Paulitics. He’s also got a link to the full text of Ahmadinejad’s speech.

  6. April 22, 2009 5:40 pm

    Back in the day they called it “The Red Menace”. A demon by any other name…

    Those determined to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ will always find a way to do so, whether ‘they’ are Terrorists, Islamists, Communists, Imperialists, Hippies, Revolutionaries, Huns, Papists, Jews, Protestants, Witches… the list is as long as history. Even when ‘they’ really are violent and detestable, they are never the homogenous, faceless, uniformly evil monsters they are portrayed as in the propaganda (although it sure makes them easier to kill).

    At least Obama appears to get that and is willing to shake hands and open a dialogue. The rest of them are still looking for labels to dismiss ‘them’ with.

  7. April 21, 2009 5:36 pm

    What are the limits to constructive engagement? I rarely believe that isolationism is a good idea and I think you make a good point in noting that by walking away from “Durban II” Canada vacated an arena where we could have countered the stereotypes and racist remarks. But are there occasions when we should walk away?

  8. reneethewriter permalink
    April 21, 2009 1:46 pm

    Brava, Reilly. A great read and your raise all the “hot spots” – good. The essence of a “free and true” ‘demos’ – whatever that might be. Thanks for this…R

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