Page last updated at 20:37 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 21:37 UK

UN racism event highlights divisions

By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, New York

The UN conference on racism in Geneva has ended, overshadowed by a speech made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he accused Israel of racism against the Palestinians, prompting a walkout.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a speech at the UB racisms conference in Geneva
Mr Ahmadinejad's speech was criticised by many as racist

The UN has now held two world conferences on racism and both have been dominated by confrontations over Israel, raising serious questions about whether a high-profile international gathering is the best way to tackle the problem.

The UN recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War.

"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion," reads the document.

Change of setting

Yet this week has demonstrated the deep divisions that exist over what constitutes racism, let alone how to confront it.

The US refusal to attend and the last minute pull-out by a number of other countries sent completely the wrong message
Steve Crawshaw
Human Rights Watch

UN officials had hoped that the 2009 racism conference would not become a rerun of the infamous 2001 event in Durban, which prompted a US walkout.

US delegates claimed that conference was wrecked by Arab and Islamic extremists whose aim was to condemn Israel as racist.

So this event was held in Geneva, not Durban, the idea being that a change of setting might provide a change of mood.

The US refused to participate, however, not wanting to reaffirm the declaration agreed in 2001.

Then came President Ahmadinejad's intervention on the opening day.

Anne Bayefsky, of the watchdog group Eye on the UN, wrote in the New York Daily News: "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance in Geneva, Monday, at the UN's so-called anti-racism conference, Durban II, made the point better than anyone else. The UN's idea of combating racism and xenophobia is to encourage more of it."

Navi Pillay, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, said critics who described the meeting as hate-filled were using "hyperbole".

UN officials point out that the anti-racism declaration, adopted on Tuesday, was wide-ranging, emphasising the prejudice and inequalities affecting ethnic minorities, foreign workers, refugees and the poor.

The declaration also reaffirmed the 2001 Durban declaration which said: "We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation." In 2001, the US, Israel and their supporters strongly objected to what they regarded as the singling out of Israel.

Defaming religion

Yet Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Pakistan's ambassador to the UN, says the developing world's focus on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is understandable.

Delegates at the UN racisms conference walk out during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech, 20 April 2009
Delegates at the convention walked out during Mr Ahmadinejad's speech

"Israel's blitzkrieg of power, this disproportionate exercise of power, is victimisation. Whether it was appropriate to make it a part of the final declaration is questionable, but in my mind it makes up a significant proportion of the beliefs at Geneva."

Islamic countries had wanted the declaration to include the concept that the defamation of religion is racist and should be banned.

Western countries argued against this, saying it undermined free speech, and Islamic nations agreed to drop it from the declaration.

This showed "a spirit of compromise", observed Navi Pillay.

The fundamental faultline over whether or not religion can be defamed remains, and the debate over whether Islam should be protected continues.

Ambassador Haroon predicts that "this is going to be hotly contested in the future".

UN human rights officials are already suggesting that smaller events may be a better way of trying to discuss racism in future.

Githu Muigai, the Kenyan UN special rapporteur on racism, said events in Geneva showed a need to "keep inflammatory ideological debates away from concrete, technical work that really needs to be done on the area of racism".


Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch in New York says Western countries should have avoided falling into President Ajmadinejad's trap.

"What has been disappointing about this conference has been that all the focus has gone on the absurd and offensive comments by the Iranian president.

"Instead of focusing on the importance of confronting racism in the world today, the US refusal to attend and the last-minute pull-out by a number of other countries sent completely the wrong message that somehow the offensive words of Ahmadinejad could be seen as a dominant theme.

"The powerful nations of the world should stay to confront such nonsense and not run away.

"Multilateral diplomacy is by its very nature a complicated business. But the way to make this better is to engage consistently, not to stamp your foot and walk out in a sulk."

Britain's Ambassador to the UN, Sir John Sawyers, defends UN conferences, saying: "They help develop and push the international agenda, raising the profile of issues and moving them to a higher political level.

"One example is the 2007 Climate Change Conference, and the 2008 High Level Event on the Millennium Development Goals. They can also help to establish a broad international consensus."

Ultimately, UN events can only achieve as much as the participants are willing to agree.

This week's conference on racism mirrored the divisions which exist among the 192 countries that make up the world body.

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