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 a summary of a press briefing held by Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, on 4 September in Durban, South Africa:

The United States has not withdrawn its delegation from the World Conference against Racism, the Secretary-General of the Conference and United States High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said in Durban, South Africa, this afternoon.

Speaking at the daily press briefing, Mrs. Robinson said she had just received the clarification from Ambassador Michael Southwick, head of the United States delegation, who had called her from the airport.

"I think he felt that it was important to clarify that although he and other colleagues from Washington are returning to Washington as requested, the United States is not withdrawing its delegation and Craig Kuehl, the Consul-General of the United States in Durban, will be that delegation for the moment. I asked whether he will be an observer and he said no, he will be the delegation and look after United States interests at the Conference in the normal way."

She said there had been a great deal of sadness and dismay over the announcement that the United States and Israel were to withdraw their delegates from the Conference. "Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see the constructive spirit of the delegates to continue under the leadership of the President of the Conference, Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma."

Mrs. Robinson said the Conference President had quickly convened the General Committee last night and proposed that all the language relating to the Middle East be withdrawn from the text. If there was agreement on that, she would propose a way of ensuring substitute language, which hopefully would be agreed.

"It was clear overnight that all parties agreed to this course under her leadership and she has now proposed that South Africa will prepare an initial draft and she is then proposing to put together a small group", the High Commissioner said.

Asked what possible damage the actions of the United States and Israel could cause to the international system as well as to current and future conferences, Mrs. Robinson said that yesterday evening there had been a very welcome spirit among delegates to ensure that the important work of Durban would continue and come to fruition. Hopefully by Friday, there would be the fullest possible support for the agreed text of the Declaration and Programme of Action.

Noting that the question seemed to imply that the Conference was somehow less valid or viable, the High Commissioner said: "The Conference is continuing on course. There is a very constructive spirit. Everybody knows the time is short. The work is not only continuing, but I think it's being addressed with even more seriousness of purpose and I'm encouraged by that."

Referring to the European Union's stated intention to defend Israel from the floor and the passions evoked among the Arab and Islamic States, another journalist asked if it was possible that the text would contain no language on the Middle East and that the issue would fall away due to lack of consensus.

Mrs. Robinson replied that the European Union would want the text on the Middle East and the overall text to be appropriate to a world conference against racism and discrimination. They would be vigilant to see that there was no language that was considered to be inappropriate

She recalled having gone on record during the second Preparatory Committee meeting in Geneva, saying there had to be some reference to the suffering of the Palestinian people because it was so impacting on the Conference, not least on the people of the host country. "But this is a Conference about victims, it's not about singling one particular country out for finger-pointing", she added.

Asked what had gone wrong in light of her previous assurance that there would be no finger-pointing, the High Commissioner cited the Conference President's statement this morning that participants were in Durban to negotiate agreed text. The President had quoted the South African experience of learning the difficult business of listening and not coming in with fixed, non-negotiable positions.

"It takes time, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to listen to the other side and then hopefully, with difficulty on such issues, agreement is reached or there is agreement to disagree", Mrs. Robinson said. Very often, the experience in world conferences was that things did not happen until the end of the negotiations, she added.

"There's some Parkinson's Law that applies to conferences; the really tough issues don't get agreed until the eleventh hour", she went on. "I would anticipate that we probably won't put these to bed until some time on Friday. That's normal."

Another journalist asked why the Conference's emphasis seemed to be on the text of the contested areas of the draft Declaration when those issues were historically very hard, involving intense differences in substance.

Agreeing that the issues were difficult, Mrs. Robinson pointed out that this was the first time that the global community had sought to address historical differences as well as very real differences of perception. Nevertheless, positions were coming closer. "The report from the group dealing with the past, from Brazil and Kenya was that there has been further discussion that shows movement, and there will be a further meeting today", she said.

Mrs. Robinson emphasized that it must be remembered that although this was the third world conference against racism, Durban was different as it was the first post-apartheid conference. The two previous ones had been attended almost entirely by government delegates, with almost no civil society presence.

"This time we have a huge presence from civil society", she said. Having spent a lot of time with them, she described a panel where young girls from various minority communities had described their experiences of discrimination and how their family and friends lived it. "Civil society has taken this splendid opportunity to bring to our attention the issues of racism and discrimination that need addressing."

In a plea to the media, she said they had kept the focus on the areas of contention, which were important, nevertheless. "But please recognize the richness and diversity of discussion and the importance of the fact that silence is being broken; that we're made more aware; that here in Durban we're learning that every single country has problems of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.

"Out of Durban must come one overriding plan, that is that every country commits to adopting a plan of action, and that would include the United States and Israel", she said.

Mrs. Robinson expressed the hope that some of the historical differences could be reduced to text. It was the responsibility and duty of diplomats to try to reach agreement on difficult texts so that the Conference could move forward.

Another journalist asked about reports that the delegations of Namibia and Zimbabwe were planning bilateral negotiations on the reparations question. Did that mean the issue was no longer in the draft official documents?

The High Commissioner replied that many bilateral negotiations were going on that she would not necessarily know about as Secretary-General. She was aware of formal facilitating through the leadership of the Conference President, who had asked Brazil and Kenya to lead on the group of issues relating to the past. "It may be that there are smaller groups seeking to conserve position. Again that's very normal", she said.

"All the delegates here, especially in the General Committee, have emphasized the importance of transparency", she added. "These are new issues that they are trying to grapple with and reach agreement on. There is an apprehension that there would be secret discussions. So although the negotiations are delicate, they have to be as transparent as possible."

Was the United States decision to keep representation in Durban a result of the Conference President's initiative? another journalist asked.

Mrs. Robinson replied that any such questions should be put to the United States representative at the Conference. "I really would like to emphasize that I believe we're back on course, we've steadied and everyone
knows that time is short. We've come a long bumpy way to get here, but voices that were ignored are being heard."

Paraphrasing the late Martin Luther King, she said: "Let's not lose sight of the prize. It's within our grasp to have a ringing endorsement of respect for human dignity. The voices we've heard are crying out for human dignity".

She went on: "If we don't succeed here in Durban, it won't be neutral. The situation, in very worrying ways, including potentially in the Middle East region, will be more difficult. So there is a real responsibility on delegates, and there is a real will -- in the civil society, in the youth, in the NGO groups -- to get the leadership of an agreement out of Durban, to break new ground and to go forward on that".

In response to a question about Palestinian groups describing Israel as an apartheid State, Mrs. Robinson said she had made it clear that she had been disturbed and distressed by vitriolic words and inappropriate content in the NGO Forum. For the first time she was unable to recommend to delegates that they pay close attention to the NGO declaration.

"I will say to them that there are good things in the NGO declaration, but I cannot recommend it because I cannot accept some of the language in it, particularly the reference to genocide. That is unacceptable, hurtful language, which should not have appeared in any document coming out of Durban."

Clarifying one point for another journalist, Mrs. Robinson said Dr. Zuma was taking a particular responsibility as the South African Presidency to come forward with a new draft relating to language on the Middle East in the draft Declaration and Programme of Action. It had been agreed that those paragraphs would come out and that a completely new text would hopefully be agreed.

She said the President was not in any way inhibiting normal discussion in the groups facilitating the issues. Brazil and Kenya had reported to the General Committee this morning that discussions were continuing and that the African Group had put forward a new paper that was being considered.

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