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Historical archive

Why I went to Geneva

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Article in the daily paper VG, 21 April 2009

What was the result at the Durban Review Conference against racism? What did we achieve? For several months there has been debate as to whether Norway should take part. Should we back out? Or should we stay in, and do what we can to influence the outcome? We decided to do the latter, Foreign Minister Støre writes.

I have given a speech at the Durban Review Conference against racism. Now I am on the plane home. What was the result? What did we achieve? For several months there has been debate as to whether Norway should take part. Should we back out? Or should we stay in, and do what we can to influence the outcome? We decided to do the latter.

Let us start at the beginning. UN conferences against racism always cause controversy. The conference in Durban in 2001 was no exception. It culminated in a strong and far-reaching declaration against racism and discrimination. However, Durban is more widely remembered for anti-Semitic statements and one-sided criticism of Israel. The declaration was adopted by consensus, with the exception of the US, Israel and Canada. The previous Norwegian Government followed up the declaration in an admirable way, using it as the basis for its National Plan of Action to Combat Racism and Discrimination.

So the time came for Durban II, as it came to be called – this time in Geneva. Again there was contention. Again Israel was in focus. But there were also concerns about attempts to restrict freedom of expression, to limit the opportunity to criticise religion. The atmosphere was coloured by the cartoon controversy. We saw a deep divide between Muslim countries and the West.

At the beginning of the year, there was considerable disagreement about the wording of the draft outcome document. Where should we set the limit? Erna Solberg, leader of the Conservative Party, initiated a thorough debate in the Storting. Basically this resulted in agreement on the following: the fight against racism and discrimination must be the main focus. We cannot accept restrictions on freedom of expression, we cannot relinquish the right to criticise religion, and we cannot accept one-sided descriptions of the Middle East conflict.

We worked hard. We sought to influence the text, change it and build consensus. And the final draft reflected all our points of view. We now have a good text; indeed it is historic in that it moves away from a polarised approach, from “us against them”.  It speaks out unequivocally against racism and discrimination. Key Norwegian and international human rights organisations have expressed strong support for the wording of the text. The US, which is not participating Durban II, has taken the unusual step of commending the negotiators, and describes the draft as an accomplishment.

I went to Geneva because I wanted to use the UN rostrum to explain why this is important for Norway. I wanted to demonstrate our support for the broad efforts that have produced such a good result, and I wanted to acknowledge that the UN is the arena in which to forge solutions. No other Western ministers were scheduled to speak that day.

Was it right to speak at the same conference as the President of Iran? Let me turn the question around: Would it have been right to let the President of Iran monopolise the UN rostrum and to speak unchallenged?

The President of Iran exercised his freedom of expression to deliver an unacceptable message, including what he said about Israel. One response is to do what certain European ambassadors did – leave the conference room in protest. On the other hand, I was the next speaker. If I was going to challenge his words, I had at least to hear what he had to say. He was given a noisy, angry reception. I think he was pleased that representatives of the West left in protest. It reinforced the demonised image of the West that he cultivates and depends on. Nevertheless, everyone else present was aware that his views did not enjoy broad support. This is why he should be met with the great weapon that freedom of speech gives us – the opportunity to speak out clearly. And that is what he was met with from Norway. 

Can we talk about a European boycott? The whole of the EU had been involved in and had agreed to the final draft outcome. The first to change their minds were Italy and the Netherlands, who suddenly started calling the text anti-Semitic. They had no reason to. Their claims created uncertainty that spread to other capitals. Over the weekend we tried to persuade a number of EU countries to stay focused. I think we succeeded. Most EU countries stayed. If more had left, this would have undermined the EU’s credibility as a negotiation partner.

So, history repeated itself. The opening of the conference was tumultuous. This does not need to affect the outcome document itself. For it still stands, this text that we have been working on together. It is a good text and it deserves our attention.

All this is part of the reason why I went to Geneva. But perhaps more important is that I wanted to support the UN as the arena for finding answers to questions that are global by their very nature. We must retain our ability to reach agreement on global issues. Ahead of us are the negotiations on climate change and disarmament. This is another major reason why we cannot allow Durban II to be hijacked by hidden agendas and extremism.

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