Sunday, April 19, 2009

Doing What Is Right

As an introductory note, I am writing this entry without access to the video or exact transcript of the events I am describing. Because of that, unfortunately, I have no choice but to paraphrase Dr. El Hagog’s powerful words. I hope tomorrow to be able to update this post with the transcript and/or video from today’s events.

Today, I attended the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy. The experience was incredible. While I hope to be able to write about many aspects of this experience, tonight I will focus on what was – for me – the most moving moment of the day.

Dr. Ashraf El Hagog is a Palestinian doctor who worked in Libya. He, along with five Bulgarian nurses, were scapegoated by the Libyan government after 450 children were infected with HIV and hepatitis from tainted blood. They were imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death. They remained on death row in Libya for nine years. Eventually – with the help of France and Bulgeria – they were extradited to Bulgaria and pardoned. Dr. El Hagog is now a proud Bulgarian citizen.

As a side note, Libya is chairing the Durban Review Conference which is just another example of the truly perverse nature of this conference. Dr. El Hagog – speaking on behalf of UN Watch – confronted the Libyan chair at Friday’s preperation session. This exchange is described in detail in Zvika Kreiger’s blog for New Republic at http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_plank/archive/2009/04/19/durban-ii-dispatch-libya-on-trial.aspx

In describing his experience, Dr. El Hagog noted that he – a Palestinian Muslim – had been imprisoned by Libya, a country that he felt was his “big brother” (using this with its affectionate – and not Orwellian – meaning). He was then scapegoated by this big brother because he – as a foreigner – was still an outsider even though he is Muslim. The Libyan government – to discredit him – accused him of working for CIA or Mossad. They accused him of really being a Jew or a Christian. They attacked him because – as a foreigner without a state of his own – he was vulnarable and he could be scapegoated. They tortured him and threatened his family, forcing him to confess to atrocities that he did not commit.

The person who first came to help Dr. El Hagog was not a Muslim. It was not a Christian. It was not even an Arab. The first peson who came to Dr. El Hagog’s aid was a Jew, a Bulgarian government official. Dr. El Hagog eloquently spoke about his supposed enemy coming to his rescue. He implied that he used to believe things about Jews that he did not believe anymore because of the actions of this one man.

Dr. El Hagog’s words (which I again, I apoligize I cannot bring to you word for word at this time) brought me to tears. His story reminded me that, in life, we often focus on “us” versus “them”. For some, the “us” may be Israelis and the “them” may be Palestinians. The “us” may be Jews and the “them” may be Muslims. The “us” may be Americans and the “them” may be the rest of the world. But – in the end – the real “us” that matters is those who would chose to help people and the “them” is those that chose to harm people. In this case, the Libyan government chose to persecute Dr. El Hagog and the five Bulgarian nurses. And to this Bulgarian government official, it did not matter that he was Jewish and Dr. El Hagog is Muslim. It did not matter that he was Bulgarian and that Dr. El Hagog was Palestinian. It only mattered that Dr. El Hagog was suffering a horrible injustice.

Injustice does not change – it cannot change – because of the identity of the victim. Whether the victims are the Darfurians of the Sudan, the Tutsis of Rwanda or Hitler's 11 million victims during WWII, victims of injustice need the actions of the just. The powerless need the protection of the powerful.

This is the true tragedy of the Durban Review Conference. The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances should be the forum where the world comes together and sets out the standards by which majorities must treat minorities, by which the governors should treat the governed and by which victims can seek redress against those that victimize them. Instead, it will likely being a sideshow – starting with tomorrow’s speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And because of this sideshow, it is the voices of the real victims – like Dr. El Hagog – that will not be heard.

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