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High Commissioner Makes Concrete Proposals to Combat Racism

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.

Delegates at a regional preparatory meeting in Nigeria, ahead of a major anti-racism conference to be held in Geneva in April - © OHCHRThe 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.

The High Commissioner, who is Secretary-General of the Review Conference, called on governments to transcend political differences and to work together to eliminate racism and xenophobia. 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 .

Pillay 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.

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.

In her report, Pillay outlines some of the challenges affecting the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), agreed at the 2001 World Conference against Racism. She notes the slow progress in reaching Millennium Development Goals on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger despite actions at national and international levels, the international food crisis and the devastating consequences of the current financial crisis, saying that poverty represents a major challenge to reducing racism. The convergence of the global food crisis, the economic and financial crisis and the effects of climate change have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable groups and hamper progress in the struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

Her report notes that with increasing globalization and migration, societies have become more diverse and more multicultural. A growing number of States face the challenge of ensuring mutual respect for people of diverse backgrounds within their societies as well as social harmony, equal opportunities and non-discrimination. In the past few decades and increasingly in the past few years, migrants have become vulnerable to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. They are often perceived as competitors for scarce resources and as threats to the livelihood of others.

Terrorism and some counter-terrorism measures are also having an impact on implementation of the DDPA. Just days after the conclusion of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, followed by others around the world had a major impact on efforts to combat racism.

However, the High Commissioner says she is confident that the review process currently underway will provide renewed impetus to the implementation of the DDPA, which elaborates a comprehensive approach to the achievement of human dignity and the enjoyment by all of all human rights.

“We must reaffirm the DDPA without reservation and redouble efforts made to implement it. We must preserve and build upon the commitments made therein, as it represents the most comprehensive and universally accepted platform to combat racism to date.”

23 January 2009