World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
Durban, South Africa
31 August 7 September 2001

30 August 2001


The reaffirmation of human dignity was one of several important values that the Durban World Conference against Racism could set at the beginning of the new century, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said at a press briefing this afternoon.

Citing article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- "all human persons are equal in dignity and rights" -- Mrs. Robinson said her travels around the world as High Commissioner had shown that was not the case. "I think we tend to focus on human rights and this Conference gives an extraordinary opportunity to focus also on human dignity", she added.

Mrs. Robinson, who is Secretary-General of the World Conference, stressed the need for it to produce a practical, forward-looking Declaration and Programme of Action. But she also said it was of great importance that the global community and the delegates gathered in Durban would together address the past for the first time ever. The Conference would have to find agreed language that acknowledged the wrongs and the exploitations of the past. That would be an extraordinary way to reinforce and reaffirm human dignity.

A correspondent asked how the United Nations would dispel the impression of the Conference as a massive public relations exercise in view of the acrimony before the event had even started.

Mrs. Robinson replied that every country had problems when it came to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Some were either in denial or completely underestimated their problems, while other countries came to terms with and faced up to them.

She said that although certain issues could be addressed, particularly from the victims' perspective, it was inappropriate to point fingers at particular countries in a global conference. The important thing was that countries accept a Programme of Action and could make national plans to implement and monitor it. The Conference was therefore not mere public relations, she added.

Answering questions on levels of representation, Mrs. Robinson noted that it was mainly heads of State from Africa who were to attend. She particularly welcomed the high-level representation of some European countries, which was significant since the Conference was dealing with issues that the global community had never addressed before.

Asked what impact the absence of a high-level United States representation would have, the High Commissioner replied that she understood a mid-level delegation led by Michael Southwick would attend. He had headed the United States team to the Preparatory Committee, where he and his colleagues' efforts had been very effective. "I want effective representation. It's a matter for countries what level [of representation] they come with."

Another correspondent asked Mrs. Robinson's reaction to the way in which Australia had dealt with a ship carrying refugees.

Noting that she had been following the matter very closely, she said the fate of the 434 very vulnerable people aboard raised human rights and humanitarian concerns. "I very strongly urge that they should be brought to land and the most appropriate place is Australia. Australia has primary responsibility", the High Commissioner added.

"I'm glad to see that the Australian people appear to be looking now at the human rights dimension of this problem", she said. "I make an appeal to the Australian people to look into their own hearts and to have a humanitarian and human rights approach and to make that known to the politicians."

She said that while the physical and mental condition of those on the vessel must be borne in mind, there was also a legal responsibility. Although the exact status of those on board was not clear, they were entitled to an examination of their cases.

Established procedures must be respected, she emphasized, noting that Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been in touch with the Prime Ministers of Australia and Norway (where the vessel is registered). He would also discuss the issue with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, expected in Durban this evening.

Was Australia risking further damage to its international standing with its handling of the issue? another correspondent asked in a subsequent question.

The High Commissioner said it was very worrying that a country with a fine tradition like Australia could find itself unable to reach out. It had an earlier tradition of showing concern for boat people. Hopefully, the Australian public would put pressure on the politicians to resolve the situation, she added.

Responding to a question on the issue of indigenous peoples, Mrs. Robinson said that the agreement to add the letter "s" in referring to them had huge symbolic significance. It meant they were not being treated as indigenous people -- several hundred million worldwide -- as individuals. It also recognized that as they are different tribes or different groups, they have collective rights they wish to assert and collective traditional issues they wish to raise in a group way.

She said that was very important to them, especially in view of the new forum on indigenous issues that would have its first meeting in New York next May. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was the lead agency in the wider United Nations approach to that permanent forum.

Mrs. Robinson told another journalist she was aware of concerns that the draft official documents contained language with implications for freedom of speech. Delegates would effectively address that question when the Conference began.

Regarding the follow-up to Durban, she told the same correspondent that there was no specific provision for review, be it in five or 10 years. That was part of the focus that the Conference should have, now that the delegates had come to Durban.

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