Wednesday 7 October 2009

Switzerland: No place for Conferences (UPIASIA)

M.D. Nalapat

Manipal, India — The Muslim World League, an organization funded by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, held its third interreligious dialogue in Geneva from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1.

The previous two meetings were held a year ago in Spain and Austria. Of these, the Madrid Conference was distinguished both by its imaginative choice of locale, given the historically troubled history between Spain and the Muslim world, as well as the enthusiastic participation of Spain’s King Juan Carlos himself.

As for Austria, which is the home of Gerald Mader's European Peace University, it is a picturesque location to hold an international meeting – convened to discuss how best to operate in practice the "Initiative of the custodian of the two Holy Mosques (King Abdullah) on interreligious dialogue and its impact on disseminating human values."

In the 18th and 19th centuries, and even in much of the 20th, there was a case for treating Europe as the "Middle Kingdom," the center of the universe. Asians, Africans and South Americans had almost no say in world matters, and exceptions such as Thailand were under the tutelage of one or the other European powers.

Since India won its freedom in 1947 and China began to develop economically in the 1980s, there has been a change in this situation. Global discussions should no longer be confined only to countries within Europe and those housing the European Diaspora.

If world issues are to be comprehensively discussed, there must be participation of individuals from across the world, a fact recognized by the Muslim World League, which invited religious leaders and academics from countries in Asia and Africa. However, such an "integrated" conference – as distinct from "segregated" ones – runs into problems when held in Switzerland.

While Geneva is ideal for participants from Europe and North America, who have no visa restrictions to enter the Swiss Federation and are geographically closer, citizens of major democracies such as India face severe problems in obtaining a visa.

This is unlike some countries in the West that are far bigger than Switzerland. For example, it took all of two minutes at the U.S. Consulate in Chennai for this columnist to get his 10-year U.S. visa renewed, while he did not even have to appear in person in New Delhi to get a five-year visa for the United Kingdom.

However, the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi – after first saying that it would take ten days to "process" a visitor visa – with the conference just four days away – finally came through with a one-month visa that set a limit of just 10 days for the entire stay in Europe. The message: "You are not welcome in our country and our continent, so go back as soon as the conference is over," an attitude that motivated this columnist to return home to India after just four days in Geneva.

Hopefully, the MWL will select the United States and India for its future conferences, as both are multicultural and multireligious and welcome visitors from across the globe.

Given such a cold Swiss welcome to intending visitors from countries where the average citizen is too poor to have a bank account, it is incomprehensible why so many international organizations are still based in Geneva – one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The United Nations needs to take a hard look at its budget and relocate its numerous offices in Europe to locations that are far less expensive. Indeed, several countries would be happy to provide land in major cities free of cost to house agencies such as the International Human Right Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

By selling properties thus vacated, the United Nations would be able to accumulate a substantial fund that could be spent on the wretched of the earth rather than on its own staff, who are among the most pampered in the world today in an organization where 90 percent of its members are poverty ridden.

Unfortunately, neither this aspect of "reform" nor any other has been seriously attempted by an organization whose international credibility is rapidly disappearing.

While this columnist was fortunate in getting the Swiss authorities – after a fawning email to the Swiss ambassador in India – to issue a 10-day visa on time, most other participants from India, including leading scholars of Islam, got their visas in New Delhi only one day prior to the conference. This resulted in their arriving late for the conference sessions, as well as fatigued from jet lag and the visa-syndrome.

In conferences held in countries that look askance at poorer countries while giving even visitor visas, several delegates from the underprivileged section of the international community are unable to attend simply because they are not granted a visa.

If each such conference were to place on its website a list of those invitees who could not participate because they were denied visas, the scale of injustice done to such invitees by the "host" country would be known and perhaps even shame some into changing their attitude.
Till that time, international organizations need to identify locations for meetings that are inexpensive and visa friendly, rather than continue with the hangover of 19th century attitudes that view certain countries as forming the entire "international community," despite these countries forming only 15 percent of the total world population.

And as for those flying Swiss, judging by this columnist's experience, the airline is even less comfortable to travel than Russia’s Aeroflot. The business class cabin on the New Delhi-Zurich flight on Sept. 28 had seats that may safely be declared as antique, as did the return flight on Oct. 2.

In an age of flatbed seats, the Swiss "business class" seats barely reclined, while the food, for a vegetarian, was eminently refusable. The connecting flight from Zurich to Geneva and back had in its business class section three abreast seats in a nine-seat configuration that even budget airlines in India would flinch from offering to a customer. This is a contrast to airlines originating in the Middle East and other parts of Asia where seats are comfortable and the cuisine superb.

Hopefully, the Indian Civil Aviation minister will awaken from his slumberette seat and persuade international airlines to fly better aircraft from and to India, rather than clunkers.

At the conference several Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Christian participants talked of the need for people of different faiths to respect and have dialogue with one another. The Saudi organizers ensured that all participants irrespective of faith felt welcomed, with even a kosher section for Jewish participants and vegetarian food for Hindus and Buddhists.

Such inclusive treatment is a welcome change from fears of a "clash of civilizations," and is a tribute to the hospitality of the Middle East, a location that hosts millions from across the world.

Sadly the Swiss, as well as the European media, gave very little attention to the conference, despite being organized through the support of King Abdullah himself and by a country that is at the heart of the Muslim world. It would seem that the column dimensions and headlines are reserved for those few that feed into stereotypes of hate rather than the overwhelming majority of the globe's population that seeks to live peaceably together.

-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)

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