In April 2009, the United Nations organized a review of the Programme of Action set at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. An analysis of the review and the role of NGOs is useful in understanding how large UN conferences are structured and the relations among government delegates, UN Secretariat members and NGO representatives.
The original conference on Racism was held 31 August to 8 September 2001 in Durban, South Africa. The Conference wrote a Declaration and Programme of Action. The aim of the 20-24 April 2009 conference in Geneva was to review the Programme of Action, to see what had been done, and what new efforts had to be made. As with all UN conferences, a Declaration or Final Statement is negotiated through lengthy drafting sessions lasting a week at a time with informal negotiating going on between the public sessions. Non-governmental Organization representatives (NGOs) participate fully in the public drafting sessions. Once the draft is negotiated, here called the "Outcome Document", it is basically impossible to change. Some words on which there is no agreement can be dropped: it is rare that any new words are added to the text. Thus by 20 April 2009, all the work had been done. There was a good text, thanks largely to the Russian diplomat who chaired the final drafting sessions and to the representative of Norway who could write well.
Thus, the many, over 1000 NGO representatives who came to Geneva, often from far away and at their own expense, arrived when the show was over. They had no opportunity to modify the text or to present their points of view. Tibetans who wanted some mention of Tibet, untouchables from India who wanted a mention of caste, or Afro-Americans who wanted some mention of poverty associated to race were out of luck. They should have come to Geneva in January when the drafting got underway. The Association of World Citizens (AWC) organized a three-day seminar on 15-18 April to inform first-time participants how the UN work on racism, xenophobia and intolerance is carried out. However, all the participants were disappointed that they and their interests would have no way of expressing itself in the 'Outcome Document' which was already written.
At Durban, in 2001, there had been an NGO Conference four days prior to the start of the governmental conference. Palestinian groups and pro-Palestinian NGOs, hoping to find a sympathetic hearing among Black South Africans, had come to Durban well prepared and in great number. The line between opposition to the policies of the Israeli government and opposition to all Jews is a line often crossed, especially as Israeli claims to be a 'Jewish State' or the 'State of the Jewish people'. Thus, at Durban, in 2001, there were anti-Jewish outbursts in the NGO Forum. In the governmental conference, the Arab and Islamic States repeated what they always say about Israel at the UN, but nothing new.
In the preparations for the Geneva review, the governments decided that there would be no parallel NGO conference organized by the UN, but governments are unable to prevent NGOs from organizing meetings in Geneva outside the UN building. Thus, just prior to the governmental conference there were a good number of seminars, including the one organized by the Association of World Citizens. There was one seminar organized by pro-Palestinian groups, others by groups concerned with discrimination against specific groups, such as Afro-Americans etc.
In the light of the Durban 2001 experience where there had been relatively few Jewish groups present, for Geneva, the European Jewish groups came in force. Over a third of the some 1000 NGO representatives were from European Jewish groups, mostly French. In addition, there were a good number of people sympathetic to the Israeli Right Wing and to Israeli settler groups on the West Bank. Their only interest was support of Israel and the settler movements, with some support of the Darfur insurgencies to show that Muslims were killing Muslims.
Into this pot of hates came Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran and running for re-election in June, thus wanting to grab headlines. As Iran was one of the regionally-selected vice-chairman of the committee drafting the 'Outcome Document', his giving a speech could not be avoided. As he was the only Head of State to come to the Geneva conference, he had to be among the first speakers. In UN protocol, the order of speakers is made according to their rank in their country: President, Minister, Ambassador. Thus Ahmadinejad was the first government speaker after those of the UN Secretariat and the Swiss host of the conference.
The UN Secretariat should have negotiated with Ahmadinejad well before his speech on its content; it should have been something very general and uplifting, the unity of humanity and respect for all. This was not done. Ahmadinejad made his usual (and thus expected) attack on Israel, with some of his comments seeming to attack all Jews. The European Union members of the government delegations, already prepared, walked out. Two NGO representatives from European Jewish organizations with colored clown wigs threw red noses at Ahmadinejad indicating that the whole show was a circus before being expelled by UN Security members.
Ahmadinejad finished his expected speech which ran way over the time limit set out for him, without being stopped. NGO speakers are stopped if they run l0 seconds over time, there being a digital clock with red numbers indicating how much time a speaker has left. He left to give a press conference, although the Press section in the conference room was full. The European Union diplomats filed back into the conference room and the list of speakers continued as if nothing had happened.
The main conference room where the meeting was being held is on the third floor. The Press conference room for press conferences is on the ground floor near a main entrance to the UN building with a large lobby where the public is admitted, where there is a UN book store, coffee bar etc, always filled with people.
When Ahmadinejad and his party came out of the elevators to go to the Press conference room, they found that the lobby was filled with two groups of Jews protesting his speech (and all his earlier speeches on the destruction of Israel) and Baha'is protesting the persecution of Baha'is in Iran. The protesters were able to block the door to the Press conference room as well as filling most of the lobby space. The UN Security people as well as Ahmadinejad's own body guards tried to make a way through the crowd by pushing people aside. Among the Jewish protesters was Elie Wiesel, much photographed by the press and TV. One of the Iranians, - it is not known if he was a body guard or an official - shouted out "neo-Nazis" to the assembled protesters.
The insult is like calling the Iranians "Arabs" and totally unnecessary except that in the heat of emotion, people have used worse expressions.
The whole UN review conference has highlighted the difficulty of UN conferences on difficult subjects and the uneasy role of NGO representatives. There are perhaps 25 to 30 experienced, professional NGO representatives to the UN in Geneva who have worked over the years. I began full time in 1973 although I had attended UN meetings earlier. These NGO representatives know how the system works, what is possible to do, and have long-standing contacts with government diplomats. These UN-NGO representatives know how to speak "UNese" and are thus able to propose wording for UN documents that find acceptance from governments. Obviously, they are lost in the crowd when more than 1000 NGO representatives come from outside, with no experience and only one issue on which they are working or protesting, especially when among these protesters there are personalities who are known by the press.
The Geneva review of the Conference on Racism may set back the effectiveness of NGOs for many years to come. While the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had an NGO-liaison officer with much experience in the NGO human rights world for the 2001 Durban Conference, there was no such Secretariat member for the 2009 Geneva review, showing that the NGO contribution on xenophobia was of little interest to the High Commissioner. It is likely that now there will be real hostility in the Secretariat to NGOs, and we will have a long climb back.