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The UN secretary-general and Mary Robinson’s Iranian debacle

Click photo to download. Caption: Ban Ki-Moon. Credit: World Economic Forum.
Click photo to download. Caption: Ban Ki-Moon. Credit: World Economic Forum.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon—who decided to visit Tehran from Aug. 29-31 for the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)—would have been wise to more carefully ponder the lesson provided by Mary Robinson.

During her tenure as UN Commissioner for Human Rights in 2001, Robinson authorized, planned and chaired a disastrous meeting in Iran, and is still paying the price for this fundamental moral failure.

Robinson’s Iranian misadventure took place in the context of the Asian regional preparatory session for the UN’s World Conference on Racism—the infamous Durban conference, which took place in September 2001. The planning for the Durban human rights disaster, over which Robinson also presided, took place in the Iranian preparatory conference, which adopted the poisonous anti-Israel texts that launched a decade of political warfare. Under the façade of human rights, Robinson was responsible for this moral debacle.

Robinson’s record of failure began when she failed to act to prevent the selection of Iran as the venue for the preparatory conference. In placating the powerful Islamic bloc in the United Nations, she lent her name and reputation to the whitewashing of the Iranian regime. The promises that she and others made to hold a serious and civil discussion of human rights, without the hate-filled and anti-Semitic language usually heard from Iran’s leaders, were clearly not credible coming from a country run by Islamist clerics who oppress Bahais, Jews and other minorities.

Robinson also blindly repeated the Iranian government promises to provide visas to the official Israeli delegates and the Jewish NGO representatives, as required by UN regulations for any host country. As predicted, the Iranians never provided these visas, and while she could and should have cancelled at that point, Robinson instead chaired a conference without Israelis or Jewish NGO officials. The hate-filled texts were the entirely predictable result.

But instead of learning the lessons and changing course, Robinson continued to turn two blind eyes to these results, as did her allies from powerful groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for whom moral objectives have become empty slogans. The planning for Durban continued apace despite the Iranian debacle, with Robinson acting as if nothing significant had happened. It was only after the NGO Forum at Durban, characterized by blatant anti-Semitic attacks and crude Israel-bashing, that Robinson was forced to pull back.

By then, the damage had been done, and her reputation continues to be tied to the Teheran-Durban disasters. Robinson’s promising career, including being the first woman to have served as President of Ireland, and then as the UN human rights commissioner, reached a dead end, and her campaign to become Secretary General of the United Nations never got off the ground. Instead, whenever she appears on university campuses to speak or accept honorary degrees, particularly in the United States, demonstrators, often including faculty members, remind her and her supporters of her Iranian legacy. Members of the U.S. Congress voiced the same criticisms when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the White House.

These are important lessons shunned by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. There can be no compromise with the blatant racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of hated heard daily from the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The genocidal threats and the frequent references to Israel and Zionism as “cancers” have even drawn the condemnation of European political leaders and officials. The head of the UN’s decision to go to Iran will be seen as an endorsement of the regime’s legitimacy and another whitewashing of hatred and anti-Semitism, as in Robinson’s precedent.

In addition, Iran has been found to be in massive violation of its commitments under international agreements—particularly the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—and is running an illicit nuclear weapons program, as the United Nations Security Council (belatedly) determined.

Given Iran’s illicit drive for nuclear weapons and penchant for anti-Semitism and hatred, Ban Ki-Moon should have avoided Mary Robinson’s fate by staying away from Tehran.

Gerald M. Steinberg heads NGO Monitor and is professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.

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