World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Department of Public Information - News and Media Services Division - New York
Durban, South Africa
31 August – 7 September 2001
8 September 2001





Following is the text of the remarks made today by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the Conference Mary Robinson to the closing session of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa:



It has been an exhausting nine days for all of us but I believe it has been worth it.  We have come a very long way.  Many questioned whether it would be possible to reach consensus but we have succeeded and that is no small achievement.


I pay tribute to the delegates who have had to deal with a difficult process but who have not been deterred from the goal of making a breakthrough in Durban.


I do not claim that this Conference has solved the problems of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.  The issues have been addressed, not answered.  But we have a framework.  We have made a start and that is what counts.  The true measure of our work will be whether it makes a real difference in the lives of the victims of racism and discrimination.


It is not surprising that the Middle East has played such a prominent part during the preparations for Durban and in the discussions here.  Nobody could be unmoved by the human tragedy which continues unabated in the region.  After my visit there last November to the Commission of Human Rights.  I reported my impression of two peoples who are linked by history and geography, but are currently separated by a wide and growing gap in their perceptions of each other.  The violence has resulted in a hardening of positions, with little willingness on either side to understand or accept the narrative of the other.  The main conclusion I drew -- that the only path to lasting peace and stability is through peaceful negotiation, which calls for courage and responsibility on the part of the leadership of both sides -- remains valid and is even more urgent today.


The past has been very present in Durban.  The text adopted on the past is historic in that it sets out the issues in plain, unequivocal language for the first time in a document of this kind, agreed to by the international community.


The language on the past will resonate throughout the world and especially among those who still bear the scars.  That is a major achievement of which we should be very proud.


I welcome the inclusion of language on the international community’s commitment to integrate developing countries into the global economy and to resist their marginalization.  I welcome, too, the support expressed for the New African Initiative.  The New African Initiative proclaims that African leaders are making a commitment to the African people and the world to work together in rebuilding the continent.


While the main focus of attention has been the intensive negotiations on text, it is far from being the whole picture of Durban.  What I have seen this week is a Conference that has taken place at different levels.  For the first time, the world in all its rich variety has gathered to discuss the range of forces that threaten diversity.  Durban has given a voice to the excluded and the marginalized.


Roma children, young Latin American people of African descent, young people who have experienced slavery, young indigenous people, they impressed and touched us with their accounts of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of racism and discrimination.  But they gave us hope, too, in their determination to rise above these abuses for their own sake and for the sake of the next generations.


Durban has put the gender dimension of racism on the map.  The linkages between gender, racism and poverty were clearly shown and the urgent need to tackle this dimension emphasized.  We learned more about the intersection between health, stigma, racism and discrimination in the seminar on HIV/AIDS, and about racism and development in the panel organized by UNDP.  Our understanding was deepened by publications such as UNESCO’s book of articles and standard-setting instruments entitled “United to Combat Racism”, the report on International Migration, Racism and Xenophobia jointly prepared by my Office, the IOM and ILO and by the gathering of academic experts organised by UNRISD on Racism and Public Policy.


At the Voices Forum there was proof of the global nature of racism as we listened to moving stories of discrimination from every part of the world.


The main message I would like to leave you with is that Durban must be a beginning and not an end.  There must be follow up.  The documents we have agreed to here will be meaningless unless governments act on them.  Civil society must work as allies of governments in this task and must ensure that the commitments entered into here are honoured.


I take heart from the new alliances I saw taking shape in Durban:  the role that parliamentarians can play was highlighted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union; the National Human Rights Commissions sent us a powerful expression of their determination to play their part; the treaty bodies and special mechanisms of the Commission on Human Rights played an active part; the vital role of the media and the private sector in combating racism was emphasised.  And I believe that the non-governmental organizations will go away with a renewed resolve to integrate the Durban agenda into their activities.  I am relying on civil society to take up the torch from this Conference and carry it forward.


I welcome the recommendations of this Conference in regard to follow-up by my Office and by me as High Commissioner and look forward to the cooperation and support of governments in implementing this.


We now have a series of concrete recommendations -- for national plans and programmes, for better treatment of victims, for tougher anti-discrimination legislation and administrative measures, for universal ratification and implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other relevant international treaties, for strengthening education (a most important area), for improving the remedies and recourses available to victims, and many more.  These are where our attention should now be concentrated.  This is the work we have to begin and to carry from here.


There are many people who deserve thanks and I would like to mention some of them.  I wish, first of all, to express my appreciation to the government and the people of South Africa for the arrangements which were made for us in Durban.  The efficiency and good humour of those we worked with over the past fortnight were such as to make our work much easier and our stay in Durban memorable.


I thank President Mbeki for his solidarity with us during a very difficult week for him.  Our thoughts are with him today.


I would like to say a special word of thanks to you personally for being such an excellent Chair and to your colleagues who worked so unstintingly.


Among the delegations it would be invidious to single out individuals but I feel that I must put on record my appreciation to the Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Louis Michel, who went that extra mile for the Conference.


Tributes are rightly being paid to the regional coordinators, the Chairs of the two working groups and the facilitators on difficult issues and I am happy to join in those.  Without their tireless contributions, this outcome would not have been possible.  I wish to pay tribute also to the many delegates who took on the task of sorting out individual issues as they arose.  This, too, was vital work.  Many delegates made substantive inputs to the debate which had a less visible, but no less important role in ensuring this successful outcome.


Finally, I pay tribute to all who supported the smooth running of the Conference, the interpreters, translators, press officers and editors and all the support staff here at the International Conference Centre.


It has been, as I said, exhausting and I am sure that everyone will benefit from a break.  But not for too long.  There is plenty of work ahead of us.




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