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Press Release

High Commissioner Makes Concrete Proposals to Combat Racism

23 February 2009
Ahead of major anti-racism conference, High Commissioner urges unity and combined efforts, proposes technical solutions to combat discrimination.

GENEVA – Calling on governments to transcend political differences and work together to eliminate racism and xenophobia, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has issued a series of proposals and recommendations in preparation for a major anti-racism conference, to be held in Geneva in April.

The High Commissioner’s report, issued today, has been sent to UN Member States, currently planning the April 20-24 Durban Review Conference to  assess implementation of the wide-ranging Programme of Action agreed at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa.

Although government representatives preparing for the Review Conference have so far made all their decisions by consensus, some of the language proposed for a draft conference outcome document has been controversial because of its criticism of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The High Commissioner, who is Secretary-General of the Review Conference, appealed to governments not to allow any single issue to dominate discussions of such vital importance to human dignity to the exclusion and detriment of others. “I appeal to all to uphold the consensually agreed objectives of the Durban Review Conference, and to bear in mind their importance to the millions of victims around the world,” she said, adding, “I urge Member States to transcend their differences and to join efforts to confront racism and xenophobia.”

Addressing another controversial topic, Pillay proposed holding a series of expert workshops in order to help governments find common ground on the issue of defamation of religions. Several Islamic states have proposed language that would limit what they describe as defamation of religions, which Western states have expressed difficulty in accepting because of the potential negative impact on freedom of expression.

“In order to find common ground, we need to work together in good faith, with open minds and constructive thinking,” noted Pillay in her report. “To this end, while I understand the concerns behind the concept of defamation of religions, I believe that from a human rights perspective and in light of the Durban Review Conference, it should be addressed as an issue of incitement to religious hatred within the existing framework of international human rights law.” The workshops she proposed would be designed to foster better understanding of the legislative patterns and judicial practices in different regions of the world, reflecting different legal systems and traditions.

In her report, Pillay outlines some to of the challenges affecting the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), agreed at the 2001 World Conference against Racism. Slow progress on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, along with the global financial crisis, the food crisis and climate change all have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable groups and hamper progress in the struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, she noted. Increasing globalization and migration have made societies more diverse and more multicultural, but migrants have become vulnerable to racism and are often perceived as competitors for scarce resources.   

She said that terrorism and some counter-terrorism measures had also impeded progress in combating racism. Just days after the conclusion of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, followed by others around the world dramatically changed the climate surrounding the implementation of the DDPA.

Pillay also makes several detailed and practical proposals for combating racism that will move the process beyond political positions and into technical implementation. Pillay suggests, for example, that her office establish an international “observatory” on racism that would serve as a focal point for gathering information. This would help governments and other stakeholders to better understand problem areas and to share good practices in combating them.