Barely ten days before the Durban review conference got under way in Geneva, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his attendance. Another Iranian - a dissident, Batebi - was also due to speak. Having escaped Iran's jails after years of confinement and abuse, he is now a vocal supporter of human rights there and living proof of the regime's brutish ways.
But Batebi's only stage was at a fringe event. Meanwhile, the head of a regime that persecutes religious and ethnic minorities, demeans women and hangs homosexuals was able to address the world, yet again, from an official platform.
This is the irony of the Durban review - held at the seat of the UN's Human Rights Council - and the most compelling evidence of the perils of engagement. The conference preparatory work was monopolised by countries that have elevated denial of human rights to a sophisticated art form.
Ahmadinejad attended hoping to rub shoulders and have photo-ops with leaders of democracies, a stamp of approval that engagement gives tyrants in exchange for what the West defines as good behaviour - the seamless switch from arsonist to fireman. Indeed, he achieved his goal thanks to Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, a man so deluded with engagement he must have thought that dialogue could transform a totalitarian Holocaust denier into a Simon Wiesenthal.
Clearly, statesmen must recognise that dictators are a fact of life and that human rights activists might sometimes be a luxury we can ill afford. Besides, engagement is not a one-way street - even tyrants understand that. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, engagement bears no fewer than five different meanings, including being a synonym for betrothal. That is evidently not what our friends on the Left have in mind either, except possibly when they marched alongside mock suicide bombers chanting "Death to Israel" at Durban review carnivals. Perhaps they are thinking of engagement as "an arrangement to meet or be present at a specified time and place", which is neutral enough - unless the presence itself is a value-laden exercise of recognition and a gift of legitimacy handed out on the cheap.
Thus, foreign dignitaries visiting Damascus to "engage" with Bashar al-Assad should know that the very act of standing next to a dictator with much mischief to his (dis)credit has a meaning that goes beyond the substance of discussions. Engagement is a tool, not a goal.