It was tragedy masquerading as farce.
There was the Iranian president addressing the Durban Review Conference in Geneva.
Perhaps there was no better symbol of all that had gone wrong with a process originally designed to advance the anti-racism struggle than seeing the world’s bigot-in-chief at the podium.
CommentaryAnd the fact that the hall doubles as the venue for the U.N. Human Rights Council made a further mockery of his appearance – and of the institution itself.
After all, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is busy railing against liberalism, predicting the demise of the West, seeking Israel’s disappearance, and claiming special protection for Islam, he represents a nation that has trampled on the human rights of its own citizens.
Instead of being at the podium, he should be in the dock.
Look at Iran’s record during his presidency.
Consider its shameful treatment of the Baha’i, a peaceful religious community that suffers from relentless persecution, including recurring charges of disloyalty.
Ponder the unenviable fate of gay men in Iran – yes, despite Ahmadinejad’s stunning statement at Columbia University that the country had none.
Examine the harsh treatment of those Iranian women who demand for themselves equal rights – somehow failing to believe Ahmadinejad’s claim, again at Columbia, that Iran’s women are the freest in the world.
Remember the minors on Iran’s death row, where more children have been given the death penalty than anywhere else on earth. In fact, in 2008, Iran was the only country in the world known to have executed a child.
Picture Roxana Saberi, the young Iranian-American reporter, who sits in an Iranian prison, sentenced to eight years on trumped-up charges of spying.
Ask about the fate of apostates in Iran – those who question or abandon their Islamic faith.
Probe the lives of journalists who examine corruption or expose the country’s other shortcomings.
Learn about trade union activists who are imprisoned for trying to organize strikes to protest working conditions.
Keep in mind the extremely tenuous situation of ethnic minorities, like the Kurds.
Wonder about the fate of those who courageously seek to monitor human rights in Iran.
Think about the implications of calling for the elimination of another country. Isn’t incitement to genocide itself a crime?
But there Ahmadinejad was, cockily rambling on long past the seven-minute deadline imposed on all speakers, while the sycophants in his entourage looked on admiringly.
The problem, though, wasn’t really with his sycophants.
Far more disturbing was that the majority of national delegations stayed to listen to his entire speech, some applauding.
Was it because they actually approved of his words? Or was it because their definition of diplomatic etiquette required them to remain glued to their seats?
Was it because they felt beholden to Iran for economic, energy, or other reasons, and didn’t want a few “ill-chosen words” to come between friends? Or was it because of regional or religious solidarity that trumps all other considerations?
Was it because they were somehow unaware of the actual situation inside Iran? Or was it because they opted to believe the relentless Iranian spin that criticism is all an exercise in Western propaganda, and nothing more?
Human rights have never been protected by human indifference. Human wrongs have never been corrected by willful neglect or self-delusion.
Moral clarity, not cowardice, is required to bring about change. It takes persistence through thick and thin – not just lip service when people happen to be looking. And political expedience will never be the pathway to the alleviation of injustice.
So what to do?
It’s long overdue to step up the focus on Iran’s abysmal human rights record.
And if the intergovernmental institutions charged with oversight can’t or won’t do it for transparently political reasons – preferring instead to divert everyone’s attention to the convenient whipping boy, Israel – then it is up to individual governments and nongovernmental organizations to lead the way.
Moreover, the world should learn from the example of those nations – Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, and the United States – that weren’t in the hall to begin with, as well as the more than 25 European countries that laudably walked out when the Iranian leader once again began to indulge in his racist rantings. (The Czech Republic subsequently joined the nine countries opting out of the conference.)
I don’t pretend to know what, in the end, will change Iranian behavior or lead the Iranian people to demand leaders of an entirely different ilk.
I do know that a business-as-usual attitude toward the current leadership won’t do the trick.
If Iranian leaders can violate human rights with impunity, avoid serious consequences for repeatedly flouting binding U.N. resolutions, and be respectfully received in the halls of power around the world, then the forces of change inside Iran surely won’t be helped.
If a thug, whose mug shot should be on “wanted” posters around the world for violations of human rights and calls to genocide, can dine with the president of Switzerland, plan a visit to Brazil to discuss expanding trade ties, and speak in a hall once infused with the spirit of such human rights legends as RenÃ© Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt, then something is very wrong.
If the lessons of history are ignored – including the need, above all, to stand up to evil and see it for what it is – it will be at our collective peril.