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High Commissioner for Human Rights shocked by US withdrawal from Review Conference and urges States to focus on racism not politics

UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay said Sunday she deeply regretted the decision by the United States not to attend the Durban Review Conference and urged other states to maintain their commitment to the draft outcome document that they agreed only last Friday to forward to the Conference for consideration and adoption.

High Commissioner for Human Rights shocked by US withdrawal from Review Conference and urges States to focus on racism not politics. © OHCHR photo“I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States decision not to attend a conference that aims to combat racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance worldwide,” the High Commissioner said. “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.”

The United States statement announcing it would not attend the 20-24 April Durban Review Conference in Geneva nevertheless recognized and applauded the significant progress that had been made over the past few weeks, culminating in Friday’s revised text that all the states attending a Preparatory Committee agreed to forward to the main conference for consideration and approval.

The US statement cites, as its main stumbling block, the current text’s reaffirmation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), the outcome document agreed by consensus at the end of the 2001 World Summit against Racism in Durban, South Africa – but not agreed by the US or Israel which had both left the Conference before it reached its conclusion.

“I believe that difficulty could have been overcome. It would have been possible to make it clear in a footnote that the US had not affirmed the original document and therefore is not in a position to reaffirm it, which is a routine practice in multilateral negotiations to enable consensus-building while allowing for individual positions to be expressed,” Pillay said. “And then we could have all moved on together, and put the problems of 2001 behind us.”

The US statement also mentioned the new document’s reference to incitement to hatred as problematic, even though this is already a well-established concept under international law. “It is covered by Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Pillay said. “This is one of the key overarching human rights treaties drawn up after World War II. It was intended to ensure that the type of incitement to hatred employed by the Nazi propaganda machine in the 1930s and 40s would be prohibited by law. This necessity was tragically underlined by the role of the Radio Mille Collines, other media and politicians in creating the environment which enabled the Rwandan genocide to occur 15 years ago this month. We should not underestimate the power of incitement to hatred to fuel violence, conflict and even genocide. I therefore believe it is very relevant to include this concept in a conference designed to tackle racism and xenophobia.

"Some media have interpreted the US withdrawal as based on the continued retention of language on defamation of relgion and anti-semitism in the outcome document, when in fact no such language exists in the text adopted last week," Pillay noted. "In addition, the draft outcome document clearly states that ‘the Holocaust must never be forgotten’ and deplores all forms of racism including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.” She pointed out that in this respect it reflects the original 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.

"I fail to see why, given that the Middle East is not mentioned in this document, that politics related to the Middle East continue to intrude into the process, " Pillay said.

The High Commissioner praised the “constructiveness and flexibility of the member states that have actively participated during the weeks of difficult negotiations that led to Friday’s revised draft document.” She noted that compromises were found that take into account the wishes of all states taking part in the process. “Yet the document still provides us with a meaningful outcome,” she said.

“All countries that participated in the adoption of the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action must redouble their commitment to its implementation by fully participating in the Review Conference,” Pillay said.

April 2009