GENEVA — Instead of being at the podium, he should be in the dock. That's what I thought as I watched Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad address the supposed anti-racism Durban Review Conference in Geneva last week. It was tragedy masquerading as farce: perhaps no better symbol of all that had gone wrong with a process originally designed to advance the anti-racism struggle was seeing the world's bigot-in-chief at the podium.
While Ahmadinejad is busy predicting the demise of the West, seeking Israel's disappearance and boasting of its upcoming nuclear capabilities, he represents a government that has trampled on the human rights of its own citizens. Consider its shameful treatment of the Baha'i, a peaceful religious community that suffers from relentless persecution, including charges of disloyalty. Ponder the unenviable fate of gay men in Iran — yes, despite Ahmadinejad's stunning statement at Columbia University that the country had none.
Examine the harsh treatment of those Iranian women who demand for themselves equal rights — somehow failing to believe Ahmadinejad's claim, again made at Columbia, that Iran's women are the freest in the world. Remember the minors on Iran's death row, where more children have been given the death penalty than anywhere else on earth. Picture Roxana Saberi, the young Iranian-American reporter who now sits in an Iranian prison, sentenced to eight years on trumped-up charges of spying. Think about the implications of a national leader calling for the elimination of another country, Israel. Isn't incitement to genocide itself a crime?
But there Ahmadinejad was, rambling on long past the time limit imposed on all speakers, the sycophants in his entourage looking on admiringly. What disturbed me most, however, was that the majority of national delegations stayed to listen to his entire speech, some even applauding. Was it because they actually approved, or because their definition of diplomatic etiquette required them to? Was it because they felt beholden to Iran for economic, energy or other reasons, and didn't want a few "ill-chosen words" to come between friends? Or was it because of regional or religious solidarity that trumps other considerations?
Moral clarity, not cowardice, is required to bring about change. It takes persistence — and not just lip service when people happen to be looking. And political expedience will never be the pathway to the alleviation of injustice. So what to do?
It's long overdue to put the focus on Iran's abysmal human-rights record. And if the institutions charged with oversight can't or won't do it for political reasons — preferring instead to divert attention to the convenient whipping boy, Israel — then it is up to individual governments and nongovernmental organizations to lead the way.
The world should learn from the example of those nations — Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the Czech Republic and the United States — that weren't in the hall to begin with, as well as the more than 25 European countries that laudably walked out when the Iranian leader once again began to indulge in racism. I don't pretend to know what, in the end, will change Iranian behavior or lead the Iranian people to demand leaders of an entirely different ilk. I do know that a business-as-usual attitude toward the current leadership won't do the trick.
If Iranian leaders can violate human rights, avoid serious consequences for repeatedly flouting binding U.N. resolutions and be respectfully received in the halls of power, then the forces of change inside Iran won't be helped. If a thug — whose mug shot should be on "wanted" posters around the world — can dine with the president of Switzerland, plan a visit to Brazil to discuss trade ties, and speak in a hall once infused with the spirit of human-rights legends like René Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt, then something is wrong. If the lessons of history are ignored — including the need, above all, to stand up to evil and see it for what it is — then it will be at our collective peril.
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.