A growing number of Western countries are joining the United States and Israel in boycotting the United Nations World Conference on Racism, which opened today in Geneva, Switzerland. Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand all announced they would boycott the conference soon after the US announced its formal decision not to attend Saturday. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the opening session he was "profoundly disappointed" at the boycotts. We go to Geneva to get the latest. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: A growing number of Western countries are joining the United States and Israel in boycotting the United Nations World Conference on Racism, which opened today in Geneva, Switzerland. Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand all announced they would boycott the conference soon after the US announced it formally decided not to attend on Saturday. Israel and Canada — or Israel said Canada had decided to shun the conference many months earlier. France and the UK are attending, but France says it will walk out immediately if there are racist comments made against Israel. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the opening session he was "profoundly disappointed" at the boycotts.
As the conference began, Israel said it was recalling its ambassador to Switzerland. The protest came as the Swiss president met the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is to address the UN conference later today.
The meeting is a follow-up to the first world conference to discuss racism which was held in Durban, South Africa, in August of 2001 and is meant to review progress that’s been made in the fight against racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.
President Obama defended the boycott decision at a news conference in Trinidad on Sunday, citing concerns over adopting language from the 2001 final document and its expressions of, quote, "antagonism towards Israel." He said participating in the conference, quote, "would have involved putting our imprimatur on something that we just don’t believe."
I’m joined now on the telephone from Geneva by Margaret Parsons. She’s the executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic. She participated in the original Durban conference in 2001, as well as all the preparatory meetings for the review conference.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Margaret. Can you explain what has happened so far?
MARGARET PARSONS: Well, today, thank you for inviting me. Today, it was just mainly foreign ministers and other high-level officials that have brought greetings and, you know, sharing their commitment to fight and eradicate racism and other forms of discrimination. And basically, it’s been pretty calm today.
You know, NGOs have had displays, and there are different side events, voices of victims. You know, there will be side events throughout the entire week on issues like the trans-Atlantic slave trade, indigenous peoples, what’s happening with the Dalits and Romas around the world. And it’s just people just sharing what is taking place in different regions and countries globally.
AMY GOODMAN: And your reaction to the US, Israel, Canada, Australia, a number of countries pulling out of the conference?
MARGARET PARSONS: Well, we are extremely disappointed by the boycott of these Western nations. While we’re disappointed, we are not surprised, because this is about accountability. These countries have not come to the table with clean hands. They have never really meant to participate and really be held accountable for the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, a document they all signed onto in 2001, the exception of Israel and the United States. At least the United States and Israel are being consistent in their position. However, these other countries are quite hypocritical in their withdrawal. You know, many here feel that if these countries had come, they would have received a failing grade, because they have done little to nothing to implement the Program of Action.
The Durban Declaration and Program of Action is an excellent blueprint. There was nothing in that document that was racist, anti-Semitic. It was an expression of goodwill. It was an expression of encouragement in terms of the peace process in the Middle East. And it is an excellent document and a blueprint that countries should adopt in working to eradicate racism.
AMY GOODMAN: The US and other Western countries say the draft final document contains objectionable language that could single out Israel for criticism. But all references to the Israel and the Middle East were removed from the draft document, and Palestinian civil society groups are critical of how Israel’s actions against Palestinians have now been excluded from the framework of the conference.
We’re also joined on the phone from Geneva by Ingrid Jaradat, the director of the Bethlehem-based BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! Explain your response to the pullout of the United States and a number of other Western nations.
INGRID JARADAT: Well, our first response has been the question whether these governments have actually read the original documents and the draft documents, because neither the original Durban Declaration and Program of Action nor current drafts include any inciting language against Israel. In the initial Durban documents of 2001, the only time Israel is mentioned it’s mentioned as a state entitled to security like all other states. So there is no — there has never been any sort of language that could be declared racist. And it makes you really wonder which documents people are referring to when they say they are antagonistic.
And so, I would appeal to everybody who has good faith to go back to the documents and read the papers. And especially since we are dealing with a Durban review conference, it would be good to read the papers. So, that would be reaction number one, and — because much of what is now being said by governments and in the media about the debates and about the documents has no factual basis.
AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask Margaret Parsons what this means for the US pulling out, the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama, a conference on racism.
MARGARET PARSONS: Well, this is very disappointing. And many of the people of African descent here have expressed their disappointment in Barack Obama, that we feel that he has come in, and he has talked about change. And we have seen where he has extended a hand to Cuba after fifty years of the embargo, where he’s willing to make change. He has extended a hand to the Muslim and Arab world and trying to get people to take a different view or move back from their stereotypical positions on the Muslim and the Arab world. He’s shown in many ways — he’s gone to Turkey, and he’s willing and said that he’s willing to sit down and meet and talk with the president of Iran, with North Korea.
And so, we feel that at the very least he should have expressed and shown some goodwill and some good faith and, in his whole agenda on change, to come here, to actually read the document and not listen just to the pro-Israeli lobby, but to send a delegation and to show that he really is committed to change and he really is committed to an anti-racism agenda, and to do the right thing and to have participated. We are very surprised, we are very disappointed. And quite frankly, I think that this is a black eye on the Obama administration.
AMY GOODMAN: What can be accomplished at this conference with a number of countries, with Germany and Holland and Switzerland and Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Canada, also boycotting? What now do you hope can come at the end of this conference?
MARGARET PARSONS: I think it’s important to note that this unholy and cynical alliance between what is predominantly white Western countries is them not wanting to have to address the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonization, the occupation of Palestine, and the expropriation of indigenous people’s lands and resources.
And I think still a lot has been accomplished, because a lot has been achieved since 2001. Many regions of the world, many countries have taken the Durban Declaration and Program of Action very seriously and have moved it forward, countries such as Brazil. The Afro-Latino and indigenous communities in regions in South America have seen not full and complete progress, but significant progress. We’ve seen the same thing happen in places like South Africa, with the Dalits in India. And so, I think that we are here now to support those countries, to support those regions and those governments, and as they move forward in the implementation.
But also we are here in defiance of our governments — Canada and the US and New Zealand and the Netherlands — to say we are not giving up the fight, and we are going to continue in our struggle to end racism, in our anti-racism agenda, and to continue to hold our countries accountable and these Western countries accountable, because this is our very lives, this is our very human rights that’s at stake here. And whether or not they are here, we will continue to move and continue to speak out against atrocities around the world, human rights abuses, and to ensure that racism and discrimination is combatted everywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, as well as Ingrid Jaradat, the director of the Bethlehem-based BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian residency and refugee rights, both speaking to us from Geneva.