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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Durban III - a case for UK participation?

The Jewish Chronicle (JC) and Jewish News both report accurately that the UK Government is still deciding whether or not to participate in Durban III, the UN-sponsored conference on racism taking place in New York in September. Several countries are boycotting the conference in light of what happened at the Durban I and Durban II conferences, which were so hostile to Israel as to leave many observers (myself included) feeling very uncomfortable indeedIsrael's relationship with the Palestinians is an important international issue, but it is not the single most important issue in the world, and it is obviously not the fulcrum of the international community's fight against the many and various forms of racism that continue to scar humanity.

In light of what had happened at Durban I, Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg publicly urged Gordon Brown's Labour Government not to participate in Durban II in 2009, but Brown refused to agree. As the Deputy Prime Minister said in a speech last November:
When antisemitism manifests itself in the international arena, it deserves to be opposed, so that’s why the UK was wrong to participate in the UN’s Durban II Conference. I publicly told the last government that Durban II would degenerate into antisemitism thanks to the antics of the President of Iran and I was sadly proven right.
In December, the UK reportedly voted in the minority against the UN's decision to hold Durban III, and in January, a Foreign Office spokesman said: 
We have not yet made a decision on whether the UK will participate. We will work closely with partners to ensure the meeting addresses all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and does not provide a platform for the type of offensive rhetoric and behaviour that undermined the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 in Durban as well as the 2009 Durban Review Conference...We will keep our position on participation and representation under review as a result of these efforts.
The Government's latest statements square with what was said in January, and appear to be a fair reflection of what might have been said in government circles on this matter in recent weeks. 

Incidentally, it gives me enormous joy to be able to mention 'government circles' in a Lib Dem context, after so very many decades in opposition. When Clement Freud was a Liberal MP, Derek Nimmo challenged him for deviation on Just A Minute because Freud had said: "Moving as I do in the circles of government...". "He's not in government, he's in opposition," said Nimmo, in a challenge that Nicholas Parsons heartlessly upheld. Derek Nimmo was himself actually a Liberal (and indeed once bought a jar of my mother's jam at a Liberal Fun Day in Knebworth), as is Nicholas Parsons, who claims that he should have been party leader in Paddy Ashdown's place, as he (Parsons) had once been invited to seek selection as the Liberal candidate for Ashdown's eventual seat of Yeovil. Nicholas Parsons would have made a splendid Leader of the Liberal Democrats, not least at party conferences: 
Evan Harris, you now have sixty seconds to talk about the Government's NHS reforms...Charles Kennedy, we liked your challenge so you get a bonus point for making it, but Nick Clegg was not actually deviating under the rules of Just A Minute, so he now continues with the subject...Simon Hughes was speaking when the whistle went, so he gets an extra point, and this round of applause!
Days of our time could be saved by running conference debates in this way. 

Anyway, to return to Durban III, the JC went so far in a recent headline as to accuse the UK Government of 'dithering' on the question of whether or not to participate in September's event. As a liberal agnostic (who frequently cannot decide whether to prioritise prevarication over procrastination, or vice versa), I am clearly something of an expert on dithering, and I don't think that the UK is dithering on this matter. I think that it could be reasonable either to boycott Durban III, or to improve Durban III to such an extent that a boycott is no longer necessary; personally, I could be pleased with either of those two outcomes. 

A third outcome could be for Durban III to remain a problematic event, but for the UK to decide to attend anyway.  The fact that we Brits have not automatically joined the Americans in announcing a boycott is presumably evidence of the great extent to which this UK government is coordinating foreign policy not only with Washington, but also with our European partners, and France in particular. I imagine that the UK is seeking an EU consensus on whether or not to join the Americans and others in boycotting this event, and I  am not unsupportive of such an approach. 

I would obviously be quite happy if the UK simply announced a boycott of Durban III. But if this event is definitely going ahead with or without us, then isn't there an argument that the UK should be there, shouting loudly for British values and challenging Iran and others in the raucous, highly unpleasant non-debate that might ensue at Durban III? If Iran is seeking to bully world opinion at this conference, then shouldn't the UK perhaps be there to stand up to that bullying? If we are there, we can not only stand up and speak against the evils of what is said by others, but also walk out if necessary, which arguably could have more impact than simply not being there in the first place. 

The admirable Jewish Human Rights Coalition is calling on the UK not to attend, for reasons that I entirely appreciate. If one looks at what happened at Durban II, one is immediately reminded not only of the arguments for boycotting Durban III, but also of the impact that can be made if some British voices are present and heard at such an event. Speaking for myself, and not on behalf of any organisation, I think that the arguments on UK participation in Durban III might actually be quite finely balanced.

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