Last week, I attended the UN’s Durban Review Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance(‘Durban II’).

Eight years ago, the world witnessed how a conference convened to combat racism became a shameful spectacle of anti-Semitism: how countries and organisations equated Zionism with Nazism, flagging the swastika symbol; how the voices of, among others, victims of the Rwandan Genocide, of the persecuted Falun Gung and Tibetians in China, of disenfranchised women in Saudi Arabia, and of victims of female genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa, were silenced, while the bulk of the conference focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The preparatory stages of the review conference raised the fear that it would, again, prove futile in providing an effective forum for scrutinising egregious human rights violations and would instead restrict freedom of speech which constitutes ‘defamation of religion’ (code-word for the Danish cartoon affair), call for slavery reparations, and make, yet again, the Israel/Palestine conflict its cause célèbre. Consequently, America, Canada, Australia and Germany, among others, boycotted the conference, while other countries, including Britain, sent low-level delegations.

Sadly, it was not long before the apprehensions materialised, and an anti-racism conference provided, yet again, a platform for hatred. The Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notorious for hosting a Holocaust denial conference last year in Tehran and for suggesting, when addressing Columbia University, that there are no gays in Iran (where homosexuality is punishable by death), gave a keynote speech on the opening day.

Ahmadinejad asserted that the establishment of Israel came about ‘on the pretext of Jewish sufferings’, and, as if quoting from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract) concluded that ‘[Zionists have] penetrated into the [world] political and economic structures including their legislation, mass media, companies, financial systems and their security and intelligence agencies … to the extent that nothing can be done against their will.’ Most of the Western countries attending the conference walked out of the assembly hall in protest.

The speech took place hours before the commemoration of 64 years since the Holocaust. As a son of a Holocaust survivor, this was both painful and disillusioning: painful to experience anti-Semitism professed from the UN podium by a head of state, with (some) delegates enthusiastically clapping; disillusioning to see how the world allows, yet again, an anti-hatred conference, which in its outcome document ‘recalls that the Holocaust must never be forgotten’, to be hijacked by bigots.

My academic research focuses on human rights law, I volunteer for Rene Cassin, a human rights organization, and co-convene the Human Rights Discussion Group of the law faculty; I believe that international fora have an important role to play in preventing human rights abuses. This is why it was so disheartening to see Libya chairing this conference; to see Iran’s representative elected vice-president; to hear the Afghan delegate proudly reporting on the advent of women’s rights just a few weeks after the adoption of legislation de-criminalising marital rape; to NOT hear, in four days of deliberations, the word Darfur mentioned, a genocide six years in the making.

The face of the UN is ours, and so is its fate. The Bush administration wrongly adopted a hands-off approach: we should not give up on human rights. But engagement should not mean complacency or submission; what happened in Geneva was disgraceful, not just to Jews or to ‘the West’, but to every world citizen. It is high time we reclaim the human rights agenda.