UN racism conference begins amid widespread boycott

Geneva, April 20 (Inditop) The United Nations Durban Review Conference on racism began Monday in Geneva amid controversy and the notable absence of several Western states.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in the opening statement of the conference that he was “profoundly disappointed” by the boycott.

“Some nations who should be working to forge a path to a better future are not here,” Ban said. “I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside and I hope they will not do so for long.”

Ban, along with the Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for Human Rights, warned that the current economic and financial crises could be a catalyst for racism and asked nations to be “vigilant” during times of trouble.

The US, Germany, Canada, Italy, New Zealand and other countries have boycotted the conference saying the draft declaration prepared was unacceptable as it included vague attempts to limit free speech regarding criticism of religion, and concern that Israel might be singled out.

Nelson Mandela, through an envoy, addressed the conference and asked that political differences of opinions between nations should not obstruct the fight against racism.

The draft text was a slimmed down version of an earlier document which removed many controversial phrases and sections, though not enough to satisfy the boycotting nations.

France and Britain were attending, as was Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be the highest ranking speaker at the conference.

Ahmadinejad has made statements questioning the Holocaust and Israel’s right to exist. France said it would walk out if he made any anti-Semitic remarks.

Norway and South Africa both sent foreign ministers to the conference. Several other African states also sent ministers.

The Pope also voiced support Sunday for the review process, which is meant to check progress achieved at the national and international levels on fighting discrimination and racism since the first conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

“Racism is a denial of human rights, pure and simple. It may be institutionalised as the Holocaust will always remind us,” Ban said, adding that it could also take on more subtle forms.

“The eyes of the world, especially the eyes of victims of racism, are upon us today,” said Ban.

Amos Wako, who was Kenya’s attorney general, was elected president of the conference in a consensus agreement among attending states.

The first event in 2001 was marred by controversy after activists at side events outside the official UN conference pushed an allegedly anti-Semitic agenda and some non-governmental organisations tried, but failed, to have Zionism, the founding ideology of the Jewish State, officially equated to racism.

Israel and the US walked out of the first conference in the middle, though the final document was signed by nearly all UN member states, including European Union nations.

“The hopes of millions of victims of racism are pinned on the implementation of the document,” said Pillay.