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Press Release

Distortions plague anti-racism conference

12 December 2008
By Rupert Colville, Spokesperson of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Within a few hours of each other, on 9 and 10 December, the Wall Street Journal and The Australian – both serious newspapers with long-established records of honest, factual reporting – published editorials focusing partly or wholly on an international conference on racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance that is scheduled to take place in Geneva next April. The purpose of this Durban Review Conference (sometimes misleadingly referred to as 'Durban II') is to examine the implementation of the outcome document of the World Conference against Racism which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

Unfortunately both newspapers replay a number of factual distortions which have become increasingly widespread on the internet over the past year, including numerous references to the review conference as an anti-Semitic "hate-fest."

A Google search on 10 December, using "fest" in conjunction with 'Durban' and 'hate' or 'anti-Semitic,' produced 49,900 web-page hits.* "Hate-fest" is not a common phrase, but it has been used in connection with the Durban process by people ranging from the Canadian Prime Minister to other politicians, academics, journalists, anti-Durban NGOs and a huge number of bloggers and other commentators.

The 2001 World Conference was indeed marred by the grotesque behaviour of some anti-Israel NGOs at the parallel NGO forum. Their inexcusable anti-Semitic actions, coupled with some difficult debates at the state level, have unfortunately cast the entire 2001 Conference and next year's review in a negative light that is, by and large, unmerited.

Next year's conference will focus on the 2001 outcome document, known as the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action (DDPA), which was adopted by consensus at the end of the 2001 World Conference. The DDPA consists of 341 paragraphs, of which six refer to the Middle East, anti-Semitism and directly related issues.

The first of those says: "We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten." The second says "We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities."

The remaining four paragraphs include references to "the plight of the Palestinian people" and "the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel," as well as calling upon "Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom."

The contents of the DDPA were agreed by all the states present at the end of the 2001 conference. It is a fundamental, thorough and very wide-ranging framework document on racism and related issues. It takes a vivid imagination to turn it into the manifesto of a "hate-fest."

There are other specific distortions centred on two main aspects: firstly a widely repeated allegation that control of the Review Conference's preparatory process, steered by an organizational body of 20 states, has been seized by a group of three countries, namely Libya (whose representative is the Chair), Cuba (Rapporteur /Vice Chair), and Iran (Vice-Chair). Such reports imply that these three states have an enormous amount of executive power. They do not. Chairpersons of bodies of this type fulfill an essentially functional role and are not in a position to push their own country's agenda.

Such reports also routinely – and in some cases deliberately – omit to mention that, along with Iran and Cuba, there are 17 other Vice-Chairs including Belgium, Greece, Norway, Turkey, Armenia, Croatia, Estonia, Senegal, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The role of the Rapporteur /Vice-Chair is to oversee reports on proceedings produced by UN staff. If those reports were in any way distorted, the other Vice Chairs could – and would – intervene.

The second area of distortion involves some condemnatory language on Israel that is described in both the Wall Street Journal and The Australian as being included in the "draft declaration" being prepared for the Review Conference. This is also misleading. There is currently no draft declaration in existence. The contentious language was included in one of four regional inputs, which have been combined with various other texts into a basic (and not necessarily complete) background compilation.

In the negotiations ahead, delegations will try to narrow differences, find common ground and work out compromises so as to arrive at a consensus document. As in all negotiations of this type, the text that remains at the end of the process will be something that is agreeable to all states taking part.

Another clear example of distortion is an article that appeared on the Forbes website on 4 December, written by the journalist Claudia Rosett (who also writes on occasion for the Wall Street Journal). Rosett had been briefed at great length by UN human rights officials about the limited role played by the Chair, and the fact that there are 19 Vice-Chairs whose votes and views have equal weight. She was also clearly informed that all decisions of this 20-country 'Bureau' (four countries per region) have so far been reached by consensus.

Rosett's article brushed all this aside: "Among the vice-chairs of the preparatory committee," she wrote, "are emissaries of such unfree countries as Iran, Russia, Pakistan and Cameroon (which, according to New York-based Freedom House, still tolerates slavery in its northern reaches). Cuba – where wholesale repression includes the additional frill of job discrimination against Afro-Cubans – fills two seats at this Durban II table, which features both a Cuban vice-chair and Cuba as Rapporteur."

Rosett even went so far as to try and imply the review conference process is somehow complicit in "the terrorist assault in Mumbai – in which hundreds were murdered, but where the targets most deliberately hunted down were Americans, Britons and Jews."

The issues covered by this review process – racism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance – are extremely important and can have a devastating impact on human rights. They affect myriad groups, and millions of individuals, across the world on a daily basis. They clearly merit serious discussion in international fora. It would be a sad state of affairs if, as a result of concerted efforts to derail this review conference, such discussion – which inevitably touches on controversial and sensitive areas – is rendered taboo.

* Google searches using the same terms on different days have produced both much higher and much lower numbers of hits. The figure cited is close to the median. A simpler search on 18 December using "fest" as the exact term, and 'Durban' and 'hate' in the 'all these words' searchline, produced 49,200 hits with few false matches. Another example of the misleading information surrounding the Durban process is contained in a full-page advertisement that appeared in the New York Sun on April 3 2008. The advertisement was built around the central theme – "What does the Durban Declaration declare? That ISRAEL, and only ISRAEL, is guilty of racism." It declares no such thing.


The above article was sent on 12 December to the Wall Street Journal, The Australian and Forbes.com by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Given that distorted information about an up-coming anti-racism review conference is now being repeated on a regular basis in major newspapers, which operate under journalistic codes of ethical conduct, OHCHR – which acts as secretariat for the conference process – urges journalists and editors to be alert to the distortions affecting the coverage of this event.

This article may be reproduced in its entirety, in print or on-line. Notification of publication should be sent to: press-info@ohchr.org, and headed "Durban article."Top