UN rights chief 'shocked' at US withdrawal from anti-racism conference

19 April 2009 – Expressing her deep regret that the United States has decided to not attend the global anti-racism gathering beginning tomorrow, the top United Nations human rights official has called on States shift their priorities to prohibiting racism over politics.

The US withdrawal from the Durban Review Conference in Geneva comes on the heels of nations agreeing on a draft outcome document just last Friday, said High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

“I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States decision not to attend a conference that aims to combat racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance worldwide,” she said.

Several states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approaches to the entire issue of racism, Ms. Pillay said, “allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance to a pernicious and life-damaging degree on a daily basis all across the world, in both developed and developing countries.”

She stressed that no matter how sensitive and difficult they are, these issues must be discussed on a global level.

The statement by the US announcing that it will not be attending the Conference nonetheless praised the significant progress made in recent weeks, culminating in nations attending the Preparatory Committee agreeing on a 16-page document last week.

The main stumbling block for the US is the current text's reaffirmation of the landmark Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) agreed by consensus at the end of the 2001 World Summit against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

The US, along with Israel, had withdrawn from the 2001 conference citing concerns the forum was being used by some to push an anti-Israel agenda. Israel has already declared that it will not be taking part in the Review Conference.

Ms. Pillay stressed that that the US' objections could have been overcome.

“It would have been possible to make it clear in a footnote that the US had not affirmed the original document and therefore is not in a position to reaffirm it, which is a routine practice in multilateral negotiations to enable consensus-building while allowing for individual positions to be expressed,” she noted. “And then we could have all moved on together, and put the problems of 2001 behind us.”

According to the US statement, the nation also finds the draft outcome's reference to incitement to hatred as problematic, even though it is a well-established concept under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

That pact, the High Commissioner highlighted, was “intended to ensure that the type of incitement to hatred employed by the Nazi propaganda machine in the 1930s and 40s would be prohibited by law.”

The need for such an agreement, she said, was underscored by the creation of an environment by the media and politicians in which the Rwandan genocide occurred 15 years ago this month, when 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutu moderates died, mostly by machete, during a period of less than 100 days.

“We should not underestimate the power of incitement to hatred to fuel violence, conflict and even genocide,” the High Commissioner maintained. “I therefore believe it is very relevant to include this concept in a conference designed to tackle racism and xenophobia.”

According to some media reports, the US' withdrawal centres around the continued use of language on defamation of religion and anti-Semitism in the outcome document, but she pointed out that no such language exists in the text adopted last week.

Further, it clearly calls for the Holocaust to “never be forgotten” and also deplores all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, Ms. Pillay noted.

“I fail to see why, given that the Middle East is not mentioned in this document, that politics related to the Middle East continue to intrude into the process,” she said.

Hailing the flexibility of member States in the difficult negotiations that ended with agreement on a revised text last week, the High Commissioner said that the draft document “still provides us with a meaningful outcome.”

Nearly 4,000 people – including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – have registered to participate in the week-long gathering, including more than 100 heads of delegation from Member States and over 2,500 representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).


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