Geneva: Durban II, day 2, Jewish students rally for Darfur

April 23, 2009 by J-Wire
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Tal Shmerling, our correspondent at the Durban II Review Conference in Geneva sends his report of Day 2.Tal is a Melbourne student who flew to Geneva to join the European Union of Jewish Students’ protest meetings.

Another eventful day at Durban 2- Tal Shmerling

I wake up early on the second day of the conference feeling energized. There was a general consensus among the Jewish students that yesterday was a resounding success, and everyone hopes to build on the momentum. We are hit with a sharp and unwelcome wake-up call. We are informed that our Jewish student taskforce has had our NGO accreditation indefinitely revoked! It is a devastating blow. My morning plans to visit and report on specific side events are thrown into turmoil. I feel angry that the UN could do this, when none of our actions thus far have been outside the spirit of the proceedings.

We all meet back at our headquarters at lunchtime and we are greeted by good news. The UN has reinstated our accreditation, claiming the whole revocation “was a regrettable mistake.” Yeah, right! With half the day wasted I head down to the UN determined to make the most of the rest of the day. After such a chaotic morning I suspect the rest of the day will be largely uneventful. This prediction later proves to be entirely wrong.

To start, I have been sent to attend and report on the NGO side event “Racism- the road to genocide.” This event is run by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. As I walk into the room, I see a group of Iranians that I recognize from the day before, with menacing looks on their faces. The first speaker is a man who has prepared a presentation explaining how genocide does not begin with the mass killing of innocent civilians. Rather, it develops through stages of racist ideology and he explains how the media often plays an important role in inciting the hatred that leads to genocide. Nothing he says is particularly controversial and he uses a vast array of case studies, certainly not focusing on the Jews.

After the second speaker the action begins. One man stands up to ask a question. His tone of voice makes his intentions very clear. In an accusatory tone the man begins a loud and boisterous rant insisting that the panel of speakers have no right to speak about human rights when they are murdering Palestinians in Gaza. The man has become uncontrollable and the rest of the audience is tense and agitated. The man is furious. His tirade is emotional and unfocused, jumping from point to point. He declares that Iran does not discriminate against the Bahai, explaining that they are killed only because they conspire against the Iranian state. The audience laughs loudly and cynically and this only infuriates him further. He demands answers but has not asked the panel a question. The chair of the panel tells him that his 2 minutes are finished. In white fury he storms out of the room with a group of his followers, all the time shouting “shame on you.” The crowd is relieved when he leaves.

At the end of the panel session there is time for another batch of questions, and I hold my breath. A Sri Lankan man from the Tamil Foundation demands to be heard. He explains that everyone should keep in mind the atrocities currently being committed against the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. The chair of the event clearly is in no mood to have the panel distracted again and shuts the speaker down, quite harshly and unfairly in my opinion. The Sri Lankan man is furious. Later, I see him in tears. He has been embarrassed and shamed while trying to advocate for the cause that he believes in so strongly. It only reinforces in me the understanding of the complexity of such international dialogues. Every person here has their own agenda and their own highly emotional story.

I have a 30 minute break before my next side event and I take a seat for a short interlude. At this conference there does not seem to be one minute that passes without controversy. Within minutes of sitting down I hear a loud commotion. Around 30 students have come dressed in clown wigs and red noses chanting “Durban 2, Masquerade.” Some of the crowd applauds loudly while others abuse the protestors. I decide to remove myself from the disturbance before I have my own accreditation removed-again!

I then proceed to the side event that I have been waiting for all day- “Racism, discrimination and Islamiphobia”- hoping for some juicy controversy. Unfortunately, I find myself thoroughly disappointed. Every speaker on the panel speaks in broken English and I hear nothing new. My ears prick up a couple of times but I hear nothing unexpected. One man from the audience affirms that it is the fault of the Zionists that there is increased hatred of Muslims since 9/11 and asks the panel what steps should be taken to ensure the eradication of the Jewish state. I find myself shaking my head in disagreement. I quickly stop as I notice that everyone around me is nodding their head. I hope I haven’t just brought too much attention to myself.

It is about this time that I find out that the outcome document, the governmental text that will be the product of the conference, has been adopted by acclamation. I am stunned and disappointed. While I understand that NGO’s are unable to influence the text in an official capacity, surely this ridicules the NGO presence here.

The final side event has a star studded panel, including Eli Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz and Natan Sharansky. The crowd is largely pro-Israel and the speeches are characterized by spontaneous rounds of applause. I reflect on the fact that is seems that I have only attended either pro-Israel or anti-Israel events and I question myself whether I am getting a true picture of the conference. Unfortunately, however, I find that I really do not have much choice. There is a disproportionate focus on Israel at the NGO side events. More than half of all events seem to be somehow related.

I then walk quickly to the rally that the European Union of Jewish Students have organized in the main square outside the UN building in support of the fight against the humanitarian disaster taking place in Darfur. I arrive and the rally has just begun. Jewish students are standing together with a large group of Sudanese, holding banners and chanting in protest of the Darfur genocide. It is quite a moving sight and I feel proud of what we are trying to accomplish here. We are here in Geneva first and foremost as human beings who care about human rights, not simply as Israeli ambassadors. The rally seems to be a success, with a crowd of around 100 people and numerous media attending.

About an hour into the rally I see an Iranian man who has been following our every move these last 2 days. He is holding a sign about the genocide in Gaza. We are all angry and concerned that this man will distract the media. Several Sudanese surround the man, trying to hide the man from the media. Once again their agenda is being hijacked and this time they will not stand for it. I am extremely surprised when I the police approach the Iranian man and handcuff him in front of the entire crowd. Suddenly we all feel a great affinity with the Sudanese for whom we are protesting. I realize that while this rally may not stop the genocide in Darfur, it has let these Africans know that they are not alone in this fight. We spend the next 10 minutes chanting “long live Darfur! Save Darfur!”

In the evening we relax and have a nice barbeque. The day turned out to be very eventful. This seems to be the way here at the UN, and I anticipate what more might be waiting for me in the days to come.

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