Press Conference by New York Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights on Latest Developments in Durban Review Conference Preparatory Process

6 April 2009

Press Conference by New York Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights on Latest Developments in Durban Review Conference Preparatory Process

6 April 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




Jessica Neuwirth, Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged journalists today to correct the media’s “misrepresentation” of the upcoming United Nations follow-up meeting on racism, saying the Durban Review Conference, to be held in two weeks, was to be seen as a celebration of tolerance and not as a “hate fest”.

At a Headquarters press conference with Deputy Director Craig Mokhiber, she said the Review Conference, scheduled for 20-24 April in Geneva, was a “much needed opportunity” to assess and accelerate progress on implementation of the commitments made in 2001 at the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.  “The 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban was marred by acts of anti-Semitism, particularly at the non-governmental forum that took place.  It is the memory of this experience that has carried over and resulted in distortions of the current process, which has done an injustice to the Durban Review Conference.”

To clarify misperceptions of the 2001 Conference, she read aloud six paragraphs from the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, which made specific references to Israel, Palestinians, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust -- the only paragraphs out of 300 that did so.  They stated that the Holocaust “must never be forgotten” and recognized the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia throughout the world.  They also recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination and an independent State, as well as the right of all States in the region, including Israel, to security.  It called for an end to violence in the Middle East.

She went on to state that Yuri Boychenko, Chair of an intersessional working group established by the Preparatory Committee, had formally presented the draft outcome document for the Review Conference -- called the “rolling text” -- which would reaffirm the 2001 Programme of Action.  The new text made no mention of specific countries.  Informal consultations on the draft would begin today and conclude with the Preparatory Committee’s final meeting on 17 April.  “Reaction to the rolling text has been extremely favourable.”  The Organization of the Islamic Conference, the African Group, the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, the European Union, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asian Group had all welcomed it.

She said the text would recognize that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance were among the root causes of armed conflict, and that the Programme of Action was a good blueprint for using a legal framework with the aim of ending racism.  The 2001 Programme of Action was often misquoted and misrepresented, though it contained nothing that could be considered words of hatred.

Mr. Mokhiber said the original Durban Conference had been meant as a global movement against racism and related intolerance, which was currently making a resurgence.  The 11 September attacks in the United States, just days after the Conference had quickly turned the international focus away from the problem of racism towards counter-terrorism, which had not always been pursued with human rights in mind.  “In many ways since 11 September, we have seen things like racial profiling and the targeting of particular ethnic and religious groups -- not least Muslims in the world -- to have reached a fever pitch.”

He went on to observe that economic pressures had led to increased discrimination against migrants, resulting in the denial of asylum to refugees.  “The defensive politics of Durban, and what has come since Durban, has focused attention on making sure that perpetrators are not held accountable, that they are shielded from critique.”

Asked whether President Barack Obama’s Administration would bring any change to the participation of the United States in the Conference, Ms. Neuwirth pointed to that country’s bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council as an important sign of interest.  Though it was not known whether the United States would participate, the Government had seemed to signal in a recent statement that it might be willing to re-engage if certain concerns were met.

She told a questioner who noted the Israeli Government’s reservations about the new rolling text, because it contained references to a part of the Durban Declaration calling Israel a racist State:  “This document does not say anything about Israel being a racist State.  That’s just simply not in the document and I think it’s been misreported.”

Regarding allegations that a provision on the remembrance of the Holocaust had been shortened considerably, she explained that many countries had requested a shorter document.

Mr. Mokhiber added that almost every paragraph in the document had been reduced and several removed.  “To selectively take out one paragraph and say that’s proof that one particular issues is not being dealt with fairly, it seems to me would lead us very rapidly to misrepresentation.”

He continued:  “We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten, full stop.  That’s the message, and it’s a message that has been universally embraced by every single Member State because this document was adopted by consensus.  The proposal now is to reaffirm that document, including that statement.”

Asked how the text would deal with defamation of religion, he said the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was working to guide the discussion out of the realm of political debate and into that of international human rights law.  “When you hear about wholesale attacks on people because they are Muslims or because they are Jews, or attacks that deny the Holocaust or deny the suffering of Muslim peoples around the world, that is a real human rights issue.  But it is important that it be expressed in terms that reflect international law, not just the politics of one group or the other.”

He went on to stress that, while freedom of expression was protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, limits to that such expression barred incitement to war, such as that practised by Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines during the 1994 genocide.  Negotiations on the rolling text were centred on finding the right balance between barring hate speech and protecting freedom of expression.

When asked how the Review Conference would deal with countries that officially promoted one religion over others, he drew a distinction between a nation’s self-identification as a “Muslim State” or “Jewish State” and the notion of freedom of religion, which was the ability of individuals to practise their religious faith or no religion at all.  Admittedly there was a “huge gap” between the standards set out in international instruments and the way in which they were realized by different nations.  The rolling text would reaffirm those standards.

Ms. Neuwirth added that High Commissioner Navi Pillay was proposing to hold expert seminars on defamation of religion and the New York Office had released the report from one seminar that had taken place in January, which was available online.  The Review Conference would try to establish effective monitoring mechanisms and promote the exchange of good practices.

Mr. Mokhiber explained that examples of such monitoring mechanisms included racial equality indexes and model anti-discrimination legislation, which were being considered alongside the possibility of establishing an international observatory to monitor instances of racial discrimination.  Those ideas required intergovernmental mandates and resource commitments, and the Review Conference was providing the venue to bring them into the open.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.