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Durban Review Conference

arton955The Durban Review Conference, held in Geneva from 20-24 April, sought to assess progress made since the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban (see NGLS Roundup 82). Its outcome document, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), provides a comprehensive framework for addressing racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Meeting ahead of the Review Conference, Member States, on 17 April, agreed on a draft outcome document.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) served as the Secretariat of the Durban Review Conference, whose main objectives included: reviewing progress and assessing implementation of the DDPA by all stakeholders at the national, regional and international levels and identification of concrete measures and initiatives for combating and eliminating all manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; assessing the effectiveness of the existing Durban follow-up mechanisms and other relevant UN mechanisms; identifying and sharing good practices; and promoting universal ratification and implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The DDPA encompasses far-reaching measures to combat racism in all its manifestations, calling for tougher anti-discrimination legislation and administrative measures; for better education, access to health and administration of justice; for greater efforts to fight poverty and secure development; for improved remedies and resources available to victims of racism; and for greater multiculturalism and respect for the rule of law and human rights.

Opening the Review Conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Despite decades of advocacy, despite the efforts of many groups and many nations, despite ample evidence of racism’s terrible toll — racism still persists. No society is immune — large or small, rich or poor. That is why the eyes of the world — especially the eyes of victims — are upon us today.… Some nations, who by rights should be helping to forge a path for a better future, are not here. Outside these halls, interest groups of many political and ideological stripes shout against one another in acrimony. They too should be with us, talking together. All of us gathered here today welcome the dawning era of a new multilateralism — less confrontation and more dialogue, less ideology and more common understanding,” he urged.

Prior to the opening of the Review Conference, the United States announced their decision not to attend, prompting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to urge other States to maintain their commitment to the draft outcome document. “A handful of States have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance to a pernicious and life-damaging degree on a daily basis all across the world, in both developed and developing countries. These are truly global issues, and it is essential that they are discussed at a global level, however sensitive and difficult they may be,” she stressed. A number of other States, including Israel, were also absent from the Review Conference.

The five-day meeting got off to a difficult start as the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking at the high-level segment, delivered a speech targeted against Israel, which provoked loud protests and a walkout of delegates from European nations. Jonas Gahr Store, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway, speaking right after the President of Iran, said that the outcome document of the Review Conference was against incitement of hatred. Mr. Store said he had heard incitement of hatred and spreading policies of fear in the statement of President Ahmadinejad.

In a press conference given at the end of the day, Mr. Ban said he “deplored” the use of the Geneva meeting as a platform by the Iranian President “to accuse, divide and even incite,” noting that it was the opposite of what the Conference was seeking to achieve. Furthermore, he said, “this makes it significantly more difficult to build constructive solutions to the very real problem of racism.” Ms. Pillay noted that she thought it was improper for a United Nations forum to be used for “political grandstanding…. Much of the speech of the President of Iran was clearly beyond the scope of the Conference….”

Speaking on 21 April, Nahas Angula, Prime Minister of Namibia, said that the effects of colonial genocide and apartheid were still being felt by Namibia’s people to this day and such experiences needed to be acknowledged. Poverty in Namibia was racial, gendered and rural. The challenge was to balance modernity with tradition and culture with social justice. Economic redress and redistribution was another intractable challenge.

Fuad Nimani, Minister for Human and Minority Rights Protection of Montenegro, said equality, tolerance and dialogue were cornerstones of the Montenegrin society. The diverse cultural and historical heritage was conducive to the creation of a multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious community. Montenegro had significant experience in fostering dialogue among diverse communities, cultures and civilizations. The government was fully aware that it had to invest additional efforts to ensure a full integration of the Roma, Ashcali and Egyptian population into Montenegrin society.

Speakers voiced a number of other concerns: people cannot be coerced into tolerance, mutual understanding and mutual respect; any lasting victory in the fight against racism and racial discrimination required a change of hearts and minds; no durable peace could be built from exclusion and rejection. Despite the adoption of the DDPA in 2001, nations had not been able to sufficiently quell the insidious acts of racism and actions remained inadequate, both in scope and intensity.

On 21 April, the 143-point outcome document was adopted by consensus and without debate at a public session. It reaffirms principles agreed eight years ago in Durban, and also warns against stereotyping people because of their religion, a key demand of Islamic States who say Muslims have been unfairly targeted for their beliefs since the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001.

A number of additional elements are contained in the outcome document: it reinforces the political commitment to the implementation of the DDPA; it highlights the increased suffering, since 2001, of many different sorts of victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and similar forms of intolerance; it identifies, shares and disseminates some best practices in the fight against racism; it reaffirms the positive role of freedom of expression in the fight against racism, while also deploring derogatory stereotyping and stigmatization of people based on their religion or belief; and it launches a process that will examine how the prohibition of incitement to hatred, as reflected in Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has been implemented in various parts of the world.

The Durban Review Conference concluded its work on 24 April after adopting its final report and hearing from NGOs, general statements from national delegations, closing speeches from regional groups, and concluding statements by Ms. Pillay. She said the Conference had provided “a platform for a new beginning,” and urged all to implement vigorously the outcome document. “Such determination and experience will sustain the work ahead of all of us: the hard work of delivering on our pledges; the urgent task of giving concrete effect to the Conference’s outcome; the imperative of erasing the age-old shame of racism.” For the few governments that had chosen to stay away from the Conference, they “should now evaluate the outcome document on its own merit and substance,” she stressed, and “rejoin international efforts to combat racism as mapped out by the outcome document.” She also noted that OHCHR would be following up on national action plans and through national human rights institutions.

A number of “Voices” sessions were held, moderated by Gay McDougall, UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues. “Voices - Everyone affected by racism has a story that should be heard,” provided a platform for a number of individuals from diverse countries and cultures to share their personal experiences of discrimination, giving a human face to issues discussed during the Durban Review Conference. Their testimonies illustrated the universality of racism and the suffering it causes: physical violence, psychological trauma, stigmatisation, exclusion from society, and poverty.

For more information on the Durban Review Conference, visit: http://www.un.org/durbanreview2009.

See also the OHCHR website: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/WelcomePage.aspx.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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