Eyewitness: Send in the clowns

Our aims are very clear. Ahmadinejad's Iran is a state characterized by discrimination and abuse.

Durban II Ahmadinejad clown protest 248 (photo credit: AP)
Durban II Ahmadinejad clown protest 248
(photo credit: AP)
The day began at 7 a.m. It is the first day of the Durban Review Conference in Geneva and our student taskforce has decided to split up for the morning. Some students went directly to the UN precinct. The plan for them is to line the walkway leading into the UN's European headquarters holding placards containing messages of solidarity for the victims of the atrocities being perpetrated in Darfur. I, however, head off with a group of 10 students to the registration tents to lobby the NGOs. Our aims are very clear. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran is a state characterized by discriminatory and abusive treatment of women, homosexuals, children, minority groups and others. Ahmadinejad should not be an invited guest at the UN. Rather, he should be in the dock as the accused! Thus, we want to urge NGOs to protest his speech by walking out. I speak to many NGO representatives and a familiar pattern begins to emerge. Many people are extremely responsive and interested in what I have to say. It is clear that many NGOs are not happy about Ahmadinejad's presence, as they suspect it will only further discredit the Durban Review Conference. However, to my surprise, there are approximately an equal number of people I speak to who support the Iranian president. Some responses are particularly disturbing. In one encounter, I ask a middle aged, Middle Eastern looking man whether he knows that homosexuality is criminalized in Iran. He smiles at me and confirms that he does. Feeling heartened by his encouraging response, I continue. I tell him that in Iran, women suspected of adultery are stoned. He nods his head solemnly in response. Believing I have him convinced, I go on to explain the proposed walkout. However, he stops me quickly, smiles politely, and states without any hesitation that he will not walk out because he supports Ahmadinejad unwaveringly. I am left confused and aggravated. I spend the early afternoon attending NGO side events, but it is clear that everyone is waiting for 3 p.m. At 2:30 I leave the side event - "Combating racism in work" - and head towards the NGO hall inside the UN. Around 250 people are sitting nervously, ready to watch the proceedings on a large screen. No one knows what to expect and the tension in the room is tangible. The Jewish caucus has planned to walk out in protest during the speech, but I feel guilty for secretly wanting to stay to hear what the man has to say. The plenary session is opened and the crowd laughs nervously as the chairman struggles to pronounce Ahmadinejad's name. He then starts to speak and chaos erupts. Someone has turned off the translators and no one in the room understands what is being said. Everyone is on edge and no one knows quite what to do. Suddenly a booming voice comes from the crowd of NGOs. Alan Dershowitz, the eminent Harvard Law professor and renowned human rights advocate, is standing up and demanding that the translators be turned on, because not doing so is a violation of the attendee's rights. Mayhem erupts. The Jewish caucus has stood up and has started to leave the NGO hall and is not making any attempt to do so quietly. This does not sit well with the rest of the room. A black woman stands up and starts cursing the departing Jews, urging them to "get out quickly and stay out." A few Jewish students engage the woman in debate. Suddenly the heated discussion is disturbed by the most unlikely of events. I look up and see that a French Jewish student dressed as a clown has managed to infiltrate the plenary. Many people laugh, others clap, but everyone seems completely shocked by this strange turn of events. We still do not understand what is being said; then I see what I was hoping to see. France has stood up and is walking out of the plenary in protest at Ahmadinejad's racist comments against Israel and the Jews. Others are following, including the Czech Republic, all EU countries, Finland, Morocco and more. Even Jordan, to our surprise, stood up and left the assembly hall. Half the NGO hall erupts into applause. Soon after, most of the Jewish caucus leaves to the assembly hall, but I decide to wait where Ahmadinejad will have his press conference immediately after his address. I don't have to wait long before he walks directly past me toward the pressroom. I feel his eyes on me and I feel immediately uncomfortable. Ahmadinejad is escorted into the pressroom and within 30 seconds the hallway is filled with around 200 excited and angry people. Many Jews and non-Jews fill the hall holding signs and chanting "human rights" and "shame." The corridor seems to quickly split into two distinct groups; those who condemn all that Ahmadinejad stands for, and those who support him - a considerably smaller group. It becomes a contest and I feel that we are winning. An Iranian man holds up a large sign - "Zionist=Racism" - and shouts, "End the holocaust in Gaza." Within seconds he is drowned out by louder, most fierce chants of "human rights." I look to my left and see Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight being interviewed and condemning the Iranian president. I look to my right and see Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace laureate, being interviewed. Everywhere I look there seems to be something else I am captivated by. I am overwhelmed. One student stands to read the UN Charter on human rights, line by line, with the crowd eagerly repeating after him. All seems to be going well. We leave the UN precinct satisfied. The conference now seems totally undermined and Ahmadinejad has unwittingly alienated Iran from the rest of the nations. Our protest has worked, both in the NGO hall and in the plenary. In particular, we all feel that the event in the corridor outside the pressroom was a resounding success. I feel that I have witnessed history in the making. Tal Shmerling is an Australian student with the Jewish students' delegation at the Durban II conference.