Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prompted a ruckus (and a mass walk-out) this week at the Durban II Conference, the followup to the U.N.'s first anti-racism conference, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenohobia and Related Intolerance, which was held in South Africa in 2001. Most of the protestors left before Ahmadinejad got started on his speech (which you can watch in translation and in full here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), so it seems safe to assume that they were protesting Ahmadinejad himself and not the content of his speech. That's too bad, really, because it turns out that he said several things in that speech that were well worth hearing.
You may remember a couple of years ago when Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University and was unceremoniously introduced by Columbia's President Lee Bollinger as "a petty and cruel dictator." The problem of cutting-the-speaker-off-before-he-begins was similar then to this week's Durban II incident, as Ahmadinejad made several valid and astute observations in his speech at Columbia as well (which I addressed on this blog in my post "Deconstructing Ahmadinejad"). As I said then, my interest in hearing Ahmadinejad out should not be taken as a wholesale endorsement of the man, his ideological commitments, or his Presidency... but, despite the fact that much of what he says can be inflammatory and offensive, here's another example of an eminently sane criticism posed by Ahmadinejad in his Durban speech.
Among other things, Ahmadinejad's address called for a reform of the United Nations Security Council to reflect more accurately the realities of global power. Currently, the only permanent members (and the only members with veto power) of the Security Council are Great Britain, the United States, France, China and Russia. I imagine it only takes a quick glance around the room at one of the Security Council meetings to see that the faces there might reflect some problem best addressed at a conference on racism. The final declaration of the Durban II conference this week stated that, because of migration and globalization, racism is thriving as much today as it was 50 years ago. And yet, with the (arguable) exception of China, the Security Council is entirely white.
We ought not underestimate the kind of power that comes with a permanent seat on the Security Council, including the power to thwart many of the other U.N. regulatory bodies and statutes (not to mention direct orders by the U.N. to not invade other countries). The United States still has not signed on to The Rome Statute, the document that formed the International Criminal Court, the body that would be charged with addressing war crimes that we might have committed in the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (including torture, extraordinary renditions, human rights violations, etc.). We also haven't signed the International Landmine Treaty and, given that most of the unexploded land mines that still terrorize communities are buried in South American and Africa, there isn't anyone on the Security Council that might make us do that. Unfortunately, these two important treaties are not the only, but only the most egregious, of United Nations initiatives that have been stymied as a result of our permanent seat on the Security Council.
Certainly, reducing this problem to "racism" is a bit over-simplified, but racism is not an irrelevant observation, nor is it a wrong one. So, Ahmadinejad said it. Don't shoot the messenger.