Ugly diplomacy from Geneva to Johannesburg

By Michelle Chen Mar 25, 2009

In the lofty universe of international diplomacy, concepts such as “peace is good” and “racism is bad” might seem like no-brainers. But two summits that were supposed to celebrate these principles–an upcoming United Nations conference on racism and a peace conference in South Africa–have been stifled by political reality before even getting off the ground. In an embarrassing intersection between Beijing and Cape Town, the Dalai Lama has been barred from attending an international peace forum, drawing the ire of Nobel laureates and pro-Tibet activists. The event, a prelude to the World Cup tournament, was designed to explore cross-cultural understanding through sport. By denying the world’s most influential monk a visa, South African officials were presumably following the interests of China, a major trading partner for South Africa and documented violator of Tibetan human rights. The apparent capitulation prompted outrage from former President Frederik De Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said he felt “deeply distressed and ashamed” at the move. The conference has now been “postponed” indefinitely or “canceled,” depending on your optimism. Tony Karon at Time surmises: “the South African government appears to have concluded that the outrage of Tutu and other human-rights campaigners is preferable to the wrath of the country’s major trading partner and foreign investor.” But Karon adds that shutting out prominent public figures to avoid controversy is business as usual in the diplomatic world. Come to think it, civil rights advocates have pointed out similar phenomena in the United States, particularly aimed at foreign scholars with non-orthodox political views. Oddly, such cases of "ideological exclusion" don’t seem to attract as much attention as the rebuff of the Dalai Lama. In related news, the United Nations conference on racism in Geneva was threatened by Washington’s rejection of references to Israel and religious discrimination in the agenda. But recent tweaks to the draft text indicate that the United States was considerably more successful than South Africa in bending the conference agenda to suit its interests on Israel-Palestine. Will we be hearing international outcry over the U.S. government’s ironic political manipulation, blatantly aimed at buffering an ally against accusations of apartheid? Will the uproar in South Africa stir public consciousness about the Middle East as the World Cup draws thousands to the seedbed of the global anti-apartheid movement? (WBAI news touched on this issue; listen to the broadcast here at 48:00)? So far, not bloody likely. If the derailment of these conferences demonstrates anything, it’s the gap between words and deeds that defines contemporary global politics. Image: Sasa Kralj / Associated Press