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
4 September 2001




Following is the text of the statement of Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to the plenary of the Conference on 4 September:

I wish to thank the President of the Conference, Madame Zuma, for giving me the floor and for her heartening statement. South Africa is the moral leader of the world in the fight against racism, and you are giving that leadership.

We are at the half-way point of the World Conference. Negotiations have not been easy. That is because, as I said in my opening remarks here, the issues we are grappling with are among the most sensitive and difficult which the international community and the United Nations have to face.

I think it is worth recalling the role and the dynamics of United Nations conferences. These conferences provide an opportunity for the international community to reach consensus on difficult issues. The process is often long, with agreement often being reached only at the very end. To achieve a result, those involved must persevere to the very end.

There has been progress here -- I would say significant progress -- thanks to you, Madame President, and to the work being done by the General Committee, the Main Committee, the Drafting Committee and the two Working Groups.

Progress has been made in agreeing, cleaning up and condensing texts for the final Declaration and Programme of Action. Texts already adopted are insightful and constructive. Our work goes on.

In the case of the three groups of difficult issues -- claims relating to past injustices, the situation in the Middle East, and recital of grounds of discrimination -- serious informal processes are under way, in some cases at the highest level.

And that is not all. Durban is about more than the painstaking work of seeking political consensus. This Conference is about people -- people who are discriminated against in the ways that only human ingenuity at its worst
can devise. Over the past four days I have seen how Durban has brought together people from all walks of life to address issues of central importance to all our lives.

I have been moved by what I have seen and heard here in Durban.

Young people from all corners of the globe have reminded us that it is their future we are discussing here. They have committed themselves to carrying that message forward in their own networks when they leave Durban.

Civil society, in all its rich diversity, has brought its combined energies here to the cause of making the world a place where dignity and equality are not mere hopes, but realities for all people.

The United Nations family of agencies and programmes has made clear that the struggle against hatred and prejudice is at the very heart of our work in the United Nations.

Durban has enabled the voices of victims -- those who have been silenced for too long at home -- to be heard around the world.

It is inevitable at a conference such as this that controversy will make the headlines. I am aware of and condemn those whose words and actions in Durban were themselves intolerant, even racist. But I strongly wish that more of the media focus could be on the constructive seminars, workshops and gatherings such as I have seen over the past days -- of indigenous peoples, Roma and Traveller children, those of African descent and Africans in the Americas, and other victims of discrimination including a Jewish man who was listened to and applauded when he spoke of his experience of anti-Semitism.

Meeting with these people, hearing their stories, has brought home to me forcefully what the true focus of the Conference is. Durban has a historic mission: to bring the plight of vulnerable groups to the fore and devise ways of ensuring that lives which are at present lived in fear and pain will be better.

Racism and discrimination exist in every country and every community. That is why I so deeply regret that the United States and Israel have chosen to withdraw. All States should be present and active here.

Now is the time for delegations to show determination and commitment. We must finish the work started in 1997 when you, the Member States, called for this World Conference.

I pay tribute to our President for the exceptional efforts she is making on behalf of the Conference and its goals. Last evening she brought forward proposals for ways of accelerating the work and reaching consensus on the difficult issues relating to the Middle East. I am heartened by the positive spirit in which her proposals have been received. I urge all delegates to cooperate with the Chair in a constructive spirit.

If we do not rise to the challenge, we will not just have failed in reaching agreement at one conference. We will have failed those who need this Conference most -- the marginalized, the excluded, the hated. We will have let down those who are looking to this Conference to be a breakthrough in how we relate to each other as one human family in the twenty-first century. If, on the other hand, all sides display courage and flexibility, we will send out a strong signal of our united determination to take on the
scourges of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

We meet here in a United Nations Conference, all of us with one thing in common -- that we are committed to the provisions of the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which place equality and non-discrimination among their foremost goals. We have a duty, not only to pursue our own interests, but live up to the idealism of those who founded this Organization and to the people who are suffering discrimination everywhere.

Time is short -- but there is still time. Let us use it wisely.

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