UN racism conference adopts final declaration

April 22nd, 2009 - 4:13 am ICT by IANS  

Geneva, April 22 (DPA) All but 10 of the 192 UN member states adopted by consensus Tuesday a declaration at the Durban Review Conference in Geneva calling for protecting vulnerable people and fighting against racism, discrimination and intolerance.
The second day of the conference was markedly quieter and more focused than the first, when the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the floor as the opening speaker of the main session and issued a divisive speech, which included rhetoric against Israel.

“I am optimistic this document will have a great future and lead states to combat racism and racial discrimination,” said Yuri Boychenko, the Russian diplomat who headed the committee which drafted over several frantic months the final declaration text.

The adopted text was a slimmed-down version of earlier options, from which the most controversial sections and phrases were removed. It contains no mention of Israel and does not support limiting free speech to curb critiques of religion as some had feared.

It did, however, refer back to and reaffirmed the original declaration from the first conference in South Africa in 2001, which included specific mentions of Israel and the Palestinians.

The US, among others, had problems with this aspect of singling out a state, and chose to boycott, though in 2001 Israel’s then foreign minister Shimon Peres praised the final declaration.

The first Durban conference was marred by some anti-Semitic language used in side events outside the main UN forum and by harsh language towards Israel employed by certain diplomats. The final document there was adopted by all states except the US and Israel, who walked out in the middle.

Ahmadinejad, as the only head of state to attend Durban II, as the Geneva conference was dubbed, opened the event on Monday. Before he took the platform, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon met with him and asked him to deliver a speech with only “constructive” elements.

The language ultimately used was condemned by Ban and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, as well as by numerous Western governments.

The Iranian leader said the Palestinians were made “homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering” after World War II, and that Israel was “the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine.”

He attacked Zionism, the founding ideology of the Jewish State and declared the demise of Western liberalism.

European delegates who had not boycotted the conference walked out during the speech in protest.

In all, 10 states stayed away from the conference, namely the US, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, the Netherlands and after the Iranian speech, the Czech Republic, the UN said.

“I hope those that stayed away will join again the international community soon in fighting against these scourges” of racism, said Pillay following the adoption.

She said the document was an “important initiative” that would allow states to discuss hotly contested issues “in a non confrontational manner, while safeguarding the fundamental importance of freedom of expression”.

The 143 articles in the new declaration call for protecting vulnerable minorities and specifically names some groups including the Roma and people infected with HIV or AIDS.

The text includes a paragraph recalling that “the Holocaust must never be forgotten” while also urging states to combat impunity for crimes of genocide. It names “neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist and other violent national ideologies” as dangers that need to be combated.

The legacy of slavery and the plight of Africa are also included in detail.

Much of text deals with mechanisms and so-called “best practices” for states to implement when trying to eliminate discrimination.

Sweden, which took over the Czechs as the voice of the EU after Prague decided on a boycott, welcomed the adoption.

“We have successfully pushed issues, including the importance of freedom of speech as a basis for democracy and in the struggle against racism,” said Foreign Minister Carld Bildt and Nyamko Sabuni, the minister for integration and gender equality.

They also praised the document for including “the importance of protecting people subjected to different forms of discrimination.”

The negotiation process to reach the final text was fraught with difficulties and involved various compromises. Among them, the Palestinians agreed to have their particular case omitted, while the Islamic states toned down the paragraph on limiting speech against religion so that it would not infringe on the freedom of expression.

In the end, 189 states agreed to the text last week, though seven subsequently chose to boycott the conference anyway. Israel and Canada had said as of last year that they would not attend.

UN officials spent much of Tuesday trying to get the conference back on track and to focus the spotlight on the core of the event, which they said was to check progress made in the last eight years to combat discrimination.

Most delegates who took the floor in the main plenary spoke about thematic issues of concern to them, such as the Middle East conflicts, Islamophobia or the legacy of colonialism, and steps their countries have taken to improve their record on racism.

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