Preparatory Committee meeting on racism starts

A two-week meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2009 review conference on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance opened in Geneva on Monday. It is the first "substantive" meeting in a process that began in early 2006 and is likely to continue for at least another year.

An indigenous Australian adolescent girl plants painted hand cut-outs in the ground, during the 2001 conference -UNICEF/HQ01-0330/Giacomo PirozziThe purpose of the Preparatory Committee is to prepare for a conference, planned for 2009, that will review progress and assess implementation – at national, regional and international levels – of the Declaration and Plan of Action adopted by the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The review process will also identify concrete measures and initiatives for combating and eliminating these phenomena. It will also assess the effectiveness of the existing follow-up systems and other relevant UN mechanisms, promote universal ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and identify and share good practices.

"The Durban review conference is not, and should not be seen as, a repetition of the 2001 World Conference," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour in her opening statement to the PrepCom. "...It is rather a platform to evaluate progress, an opportunity to reinvigorate commitments, and a vehicle to fine-tune responses in a purposeful and contextual manner."

The original World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was held from 31 August to 8 September 2001, ending just three days before the terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia. A devastating tragedy in its own right, 9/11 has also had a profound impact on many of the issues that will be discussed during the review process, which – in accordance with a 2006 UN General Assembly Resolution – will culminate in the review conference some time in 2009.

Progress since 2001 has been patchy. On the plus side, the President of the Preparatory Committee, Ms. Najat Al-Hajjaji of Libya, highlighted the fact that the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action had been “instrumental in prevailing on a number of countries to establish individual State bodies to implement its recommendations, to adopt concrete measures as national legislations and affirmative action policies.”

Progress on the ratification of key international treaties that address issues related to racism and related issues has been less impressive, Arbour pointed out, citing a recent overview which revealed that across the world, states "still fail to recognize the existence of the phenomenon of racism. National laws and measures to ensure its elimination in most countries are either inadequate or ineffective. As a result, vulnerable groups continue to suffer aggression while abusers enjoy impunity... Very few states have adopted national action plans to correct all these serious shortcomings and effectively prevent discrimination."

Two children slap hands in a 'high-five' in support of 'Say Yes for Children', following the international launch in London,UK -UNICEF/Justin LeightonThe 2001 World Conference was a huge event attracting some 18,000 people in all. The main conference alone was attended by around 10,000 people, with 2,500 delegates from 170 countries (including 16 heads of State, 58 foreign ministers and 44 other ministers), nearly 4,000 NGO representatives and over 1,300 members of the media. A total of some 7,000 NGO representatives attended the parallel NGO Forum, that began a few days before the main conference, and contained hundreds of workshops and other events.

After a wide-ranging – and at times difficult – debate, the conference adopted by consensus its ground-breaking Declaration and Plan of Action, which are generally viewed as providing a very useful blueprint for guiding governments, NGOs, and other individuals and institutions in their efforts to combat racism and similar forms of intolerance. It is these documents which lie at the heart of the review process – not the various controversies that swirled around the 2001 conference, and at times threatened to engulf it.

During the process, inflammatory statements were made on a variety of different issues. However, the main source of lasting controversy involved some individuals and groups who imported virulently anti-Semitic materials and slogans into certain events taking place within the NGO Forum. Their activities were shown on TV around the world, and the furore that followed has left a stain on the reputation of the Durban Conference – even though the main conference itself was not infected in the same way and there is no trace of anti-Semitism in the Declaration and Plan of Action. Indeed, Paragraph 61 of the Declaration and Paragraph 150 of the Programme of Action clearly portray anti-Semitism as a negative force that should be combated.

Despite this, Arbour warned that the controversy had still not entirely abated and the rest of the process would not be easy: "There is no hiding the fact," she said, "that the Durban review conference, even before moving its first, preparatory steps, has already elicited criticism and continues to raise concerns which, if not squarely confronted and resolved, may ultimately jeopardize a successful outcome of this process."

Several states representing regional groupings, which spoke during the initial session, also stressed the vital importance of the review conference and the need to continue the process of consensus that had in the end prevailed in Durban, and is reflected in the Declaration and Plan of Action.