Open door closes
April 23, 2009
Even condemning something as reprehensible as racism remains controversial to some states, writes Curtis Doebbler
On Monday, 20 April the Durban Review Conference (Durban II) opened in Geneva with more than 140 states present and nine, headed by the United States and Israel, boycotting the most important world conference on human rights for years. By 4pm on the second day of the five-day conference the review had all but ended with the premature adoption of the final "Outcome Document".
For all practical purposes, Durban II was over, although it would continue for three more days hearing statements from states and NGOs on an outcome that had already been determined.
The only significant fireworks at the conference, which its critics had warned would cause confrontation, were the words of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who opened the high level segment with a fiery speech focussing attention on discrimination against the Palestinian people. He branded Israel and its "Zionist policies" as manifestations of racism and expressed discontent with the decade-old UN decision to withdraw its erstwhile official position that equated Zionism with racism.
When Ahmadinejad accused Israel of making "an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering" and of being "the most cruel and repressive racist regime" some diplomats from about 20 mainly European states walked out. Former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark who was attending described the European walk out as "a striking illustration by the former colonial powers of the manifestations of intolerance that the Iranian president was trying to bring to the attention of the governments gathered" in Geneva.
After Ahmadinejad's speech, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon held a press conference criticising the speech as an attempt to break the consensus of agreed silence over the issue of Palestine. Mrs Pillay said she "utterly deplored" the speech while Ban expressed deep regret that the Iranian president had spoken out so strongly.
Prior to Durban II, the Palestinian issue had been contentious to the point that even the Palestinian delegation, led by Foreign Minister Riad Al-Maliki, agreed to delete all mention of Palestine from the heavily doctored Outcome Document.
States and NGOs were more divided over Ahmadinejad's words, with the majority of Arab, African and Latin American states commending him for speaking truthfully while others refused to comment. The Western European Group, including Israel, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia -- all of whom refused to attend the conference -- regretted the Iranian president's focus on the discrimination Palestinians suffer. Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store complained that Ahmadinejad had engaged in "finger pointing" by "spotlighting the significance of one particular conflict, for instance by singling out the Middle East as a special case in point."
NGOs were also divided between those strongly supporting Israel and those who wondered why more states had not echoed the Iranian president's words in their interventions. An anonymous NGO representative listening to the speech from the hallway after being denied admission to the main hall said, "Ahmadinejad's words expressed what many thought but were afraid to say."
NGOs themselves organised an independent Civil Society Forum after the UN High Commissioner's Office broke with the tradition of organising the forum within the UN conference. On Tuesday, the Civil Society Forum produced a four-page NGO Declaration that, among other things, ended the silence on Palestine. The NGO document also called on states to hold a 10-year follow-up to Durban in 2011.
During the Iranian president's speech UN security personnel seemed in disarray as a man dressed as a clown ran in front of the stage in protest. Outside UN security personnel blocked accredited NGOs from entering the conference room. One NGO representative described the situation as "incredible" where "clowns slip by heavily armed security guards while duly accredited NGO representatives are denied access to the dozens of empty seats reserved for NGOs."
Earlier the conference had opened with a series of speeches, including those of UN Secretary-General Ban, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay, the current president of the Human Rights Council, the personal representative of the president of the UN General Assembly, and a message from Nelson Mandela, delivered on his behalf by a Tanzanian member of parliament. Each reiterated support for the conference and called for a spirit of cooperation.
While such cooperation did materialise to ensure adoption of the Outcome Document, many states were unhappy with it as it added little in the way of new thinking and for many rendered the 2001 Durban Declaration so weak as to be toothless.
An Arab delegate called the Outcome Document "very unsatisfactory", wondering how states that did not even attend the conference nonetheless had a disproportionate impact on the Outcome Document.
Indeed, the Outcome Document reflected almost exclusively concessions by African, Arab and Asian countries. African and Arab states and the 57-state Organisation of the Islamic Conference had originally included a paragraph on Palestine and a paragraph calling for reparations and compensation for the damage done by past state policies of slavery in the 45-page negotiated draft text. Both these references were omitted from the 17- page text eventually adopted.
The lone exception was the refusal to eliminate all reference to the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, progress towards which Durban II was intended to review. The US stated its decision not to attend was based largely on the fact that the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action were still mentioned.
Even the style of adoption of the Outcome Document seemed unusual for UN conferences. On the second day, after lunch, the conference president received a note indicating negotiations over the text had concluded. He immediately proceeded to ask the states present in the half empty room if there were any remaining objections. When there were none he slammed down his gavel to the bewildered looks of some delegates.
NGOs also reacted with surprise. One representative of the Geneva-based NGO Nord-Sud XXI said: "It was amazing that the text was adopted in such a manner; on the basis of a proposal that was largely imposed rather than negotiated, and in a manner by which the views of NGOs were almost completely ignored."
The adopted text contains five sections. The first recalls efforts to implement the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and deplores the global rise in incidents of racial or religious intolerance and violence, including Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianophobia and anti-Arabism.
The second section assesses the UN mechanisms in place to follow up the Durban process without making any judgement about their effectiveness or suggesting new mechanisms.
The third section calls for the universal ratification and implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and due consideration of the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The fourth section calls for the identification and sharing of best practices by states.
The final section calls upon states and the UN to identify new means and mechanisms for combating racism and other forms of intolerance, but does not suggest what these might be.
For some who attended, good intentions left wilfully bereft of practical mechanisms border on deception.