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Human Rights - Thu May 07 2009
Source: IPS News
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Gustavo Capdevila

The United Nations racism conference regained its momentum with the approval of the final declaration.

GENEVA, Apr 21 (IPS) - The United Nations racism conference regained its momentum Tuesday with the approval of the final declaration, leaving behind the unpleasantness of the first day, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a divisive opening speech.

The text adopted strengthens mechanisms for fighting racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, but omits any reference to the controversial aspects that had weakened the declaration and plan of action adopted at the 2001 racism conference in Durban, South Africa.

In addition, 10 countries - Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and the United States - boycotted or walked out of the Durban Review Conference that opened Monday at U.N. headquarters in Geneva.

Although the organisers of this week’s five-day meeting, held to follow up on the Durban conference, denied that they acted under pressure, the adoption of the final document three days before the end of the sessions, unusual at this kind of international gathering, effectively blocked any changes to the declaration.

Approval of the document was originally to take place on Friday.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay hailed the endorsement of the document, which she said highlighted the growing suffering of the victims of racism since 2001 – the year of the Durban conference but also of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Since then, implementation of the Durban declaration and programme of action has been held up by challenges like an increase in complex migration flows, poverty and terrorism, as well as by some of the counter-terrorism measures that have been applied.

Human rights experts and civil society representatives welcomed approval of the document with measured optimism.

Antoine Madelin of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) told IPS that "we believe that it is an important document for victims who will be able to refer to it, not only in Europe, where migrants or persons belonging to Muslim minorities are stigmatised…but also as well around the world (where) religious minorities as well as ethnic minorities, persons who are victims of multiple forms of discrimination, can also refer to this text."

Swiss expert Jean Ziegler commented to IPS that the conference had produced positive results merely by taking place, because "the U.N. has thus placed the question of racism at the top of the agenda of global interests.

"With this decision, the U.N. proclaims and demonstrates that anti-Semitism, xenophobia and Islamophobia are a cancer eating away at our societies," he added.

The conference got off on the wrong foot Monday. First, 10 countries, including several key international players, shunned the gathering over discrepancies with the draft declaration or with Ahmadinejad’s participation.

The Iranian leader’s speech triggered protests and incidents, although there were also shows of support from some government delegates and members of the general public. His harsh attacks on Israel and Zionism prompted 23 European Union delegations to walk out of the conference until he was finished speaking. The Czech representatives then decided to pull out of the conference altogether.

U.N. officials clarified Tuesday the terms actually used by Ahmadinejad to refer to the Holocaust.

The written version distributed by the delegation from Iran said "on the pretext of the Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of the Holocaust."

But what the leader actually said was "on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the abuse of the question of the Holocaust," according to the U.N. statement.

It was also reported that before the Iranian president delivered his address Monday, he met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who suggested he tone down his speech.

Both Ban and Pillay criticised Ahmadinejad’s references to Israel and the Holocaust Monday.

Ziegler noted, however, that the president’s speech was more moderate than things he has said in Tehran, "where he has denied the Holocaust, which is outrageous…and has talked about the destruction of Israel, which is total madness."

Ahmadinejad also lashed out at Israeli and Western policies "on certain points that I do not agree with in the least," said Ziegler.

But the worst thing, he maintained, was the stance taken by the EU nations whose delegates walked out while the Iranian leader spoke, "instead of taking the stand and the microphone and responding."

Because Iran "is a state that murders, tortures and violates human rights. And that merits a response," he said.

Madelin said "We were all shocked the first day by (Ahmadinejad’s speech)…and I think that this declaration is the best response that the international community can provide him.

"It's a document which repeats a condemnation by the United Nations of incitement to hatred, of anti-Semitism, and which repeats that we should not be stigmatising any specific country in our global fight against racism," said the activist.

The declaration could be described as the "antithesis" of Ahmadinejad’s speech, he added.

With respect to the specific issue of human rights, the document awakens less enthusiasm among experts, as Ziegler demonstrated by describing it as "a bad document" because it fails to deal with real conflicts – involving Palestinians, India’s dalits (formerly known as "untouchables"), the Tamils of Sri Lanka, or Darfur, "where people are dying because of racial hatred," he said.

"In Darfur, black-skinned people are dying, the same ones who are suffering from hunger…in Gaza, Palestinians are bombed from the air by Israel, which massacres them just because they are Palestinians," he said.

"The U.N. document does not clearly mention the conflicts, and that is precisely the area where work is needed. It is clear that to achieve this text, a consensus e was reached, but that has terribly weakened the programme of action, which must be put into practice out of concern for the victims," said the Swiss academic.

Madelin also believed the document should have gone further, "notably in the qualification of specific forms of discrimination that have been developed by United Nations jurisprudence and that are not reflected in this text."

The FIDH representative referred in particular to "discrimination on grounds of caste (as in the case of the dalits) or discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation: forms of discrimination that are not recognised politically."

Nevertheless, he said that those who have been working at the U.N. Human Rights Council over the past two or three years "have seen how much of a polarisation has developed, opposing the Western countries with the Islamic countries. This polarisation has been blocking all the debates, all the core issues. And I think that this document reflects the first consensus on the contentious issues that we are able to find."


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