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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 22, May 16, 2009

Boycott Will Only Isolate The West

Monday 18 May 2009, by Reshmi Kazi

The walkout of European diplomats following the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the United Nations conference in Geneva disparaging Israel was a puerile act. The United States, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, Israel and Australia had announced months earlier to boycott the gathering anticipating Iranian malevolence towards Israel. The high-level delegates’ decision to boycott the conference while the Iranian leader was delivering his speech is in contradiction with the very essence of the role expected to be played by high-level diplomats. Modern diplomacy is premised on the cardinal principles of application of tact and intelligence to create a cordial climate in which specific policy issues can prosper. The intolerance displayed by the diplomats from 23 European nations negates the fundamental values of modern diplomacy.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his speech at the UN conference on combating racism accused Israel to be a “paragon of racism” built on “the pretext of Jewish sufferings” following the Second World War. He expressed doubt on the question of Holocaust calling it “ambiguous and dubious”. He accused the Permanent-5 countries of “violat[ing] all laws and humanitarian values” by resorting to “military aggression” and then “sent migrants from Europe, the US and other parts of the world, to set up a totally racist government in occupied Palestine”.

President Ahmadinejad’s peroration is harsh. However, there is an element of grievance involved in it. The policies followed by the Western nations have been offensive. The racist policies followed by the British over India for two centuries left the country politically and geographically debilitated. The policy of slavery followed by the colonial powers puts the western powers to shame. In recent times, the Western model of economic liberalism has plunged the world community into a global recession that has left many unemployed. The French President is known for his anti-Muslim sentiments and has questioned the entry of Turkey—a Muslim state, into the European Union. The Polish President, Lech Kazynski, is known for his gay-hating tirade. Hence, Ahmadinejad is not just the only leader to have indulged in harsh rhetoric. If the Iranian President deserves ridicule and boycott, then the records of the Western powers render them ineligible to be part of any civilised gathering and world.

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Ahmadinejad’s remarks are undoubtedly not appreciable and some of his assertions are certainly debatable. But a boycott of the conference by the Western diplomats is not an acceptable solution in a civilised world. No productive discussion can take place without continuous communication, dialogue and negotiation. The British ambassador to the UN conference, Peter Gooderham, stated: “As soon as President Ahmadinejad started talking about Israel that was the cue for us to walk out.” A walkout from contentious issues does not generate an intellectual climate for ironing out differences. There are legitimate grievances of Iran against Israel over the issue of Palestine that deserve a suitable hearing from conference members before arriving at any pre-judged conclusions. The behaviour of the Western diplomats has further sowed resentment among Iran and like-minded supporters. It signals intolerance of the Western powers towards hearing out the grievances of sovereign states. It also reflects on the discriminatory policies of the Western powers who will grant the right to freedom of speech only to those who agree with the views of the West.

Parroting the Western powers should not be the acceptable standard in the civilised world community. There has to be room for difference. Nor is it pragmatic for the Western powers and their diplomats to walk out whenever those who disagree with them start speaking. The isolationist policies followed by the US resulted in the failure of the League of Nations and the consequent outcome was the World War II. The Obama Administration’s decision to refrain from sending its delegate to the UN gathering is regrettable. At a time, when Iran’s nuclear weapons programme is assuming a realistic proportion, President Obama’s move was not a reassuring gesture of diplomacy to the Iranians. Obama’s decision also sends a confrontationist message that does not go well with the Muslim world.

Disagreements are a common aspect of the modern-day world order. It is healthy to disagree because disagreements provide space for negotiations and make it possible for the conduct of official relations between different governments. It is in this way that policy initiatives flourish. However, a mere denial of hearing and boycott of democratic gatherings is not the way out for resolution of disagreements. It is impossible to develop mutual understanding with countries like Iran and Palestine by refusing to listen to them. The Western world can establish relationships of peace, understanding and cooperation with other nations only if it begins to treat them with dignity. It is the crucial task of the diplomats to guide the world towards a rapprochement. Boycott will only isolate the West and alienate them from the rest of the world.

Dr Reshmi Kazi is working on disarmament and non-proliferation issues as an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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