Why the UN racism conference 'finished' early

GENEVA – After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s barrage Monday against Israel threatened to derail the global antiracism conference, UN officials decided to act quickly.

The conference was teetering on the verge of collapse. By Sunday, nine Western member-states had announced a boycott. On Monday, 22 European countries walked out as Mr. Ahmadinejad launched a verbal attack on Israel as “cruel and racist.”

That’s why UN officials jumped right to the main event: the final declaration. It was adopted late Tuesday, three days earlier than scheduled.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the document’s early adoption “great news,” saying it “reinvigorates the commitment” of governmental anti-racism efforts.

Typically, such documents are negotiated right into the 11th hour. That’s why it was supposed to be released April 24. The basic 16-page agreement had already been hammered out last Friday. Releasing it at the end of the five-day meeting was “just in case the main committee needed that much time – just in case various debates reopened or questions were raised,” Ms. Pillay told reporters. “None of that happened.”

The Ahmadinejad speech “set a very negative tone and created a very negative atmosphere,” says Slovak diplomat Drahoslav Stefanek, whose delegation was among those that walked out. “So there was a need to calm things down.”

The 143-point declaration is a call to fight racism and discrimination. It also warns against religious defamation - a key issue for Islamic states who say Muslims have been unfairly vilified for their beliefs since Sept. 11, 2001.

While the final Durban II document was accepted by consensus, pro-Israel observers were dissatisfied with the outcome, as it enshrines the very sticking point that ostensibly caused Canada, the United States, Israel, Germany and others to boycott: it “reaffirms” the original 2001 Durban document, which cited the Palestinians as victims of racism, singling out and implicitly branding Israel as a racist country.

“The text is unacceptable, because it still ratifies the flawed 2001 text,” says Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch.

On Wednesday, attention finally turned away from the Middle East, as some speakers warned that the global recession could become an excuse for more racism. Terry Davis, head of the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights watchdog, noted that Haiti, which relies heavily on money sent back by its citizens working abroad, could be hurt significantly by xenophobia linked to the crisis, which it claimed is already “increasing the hate against foreigners and especially against migrant workers.”

The European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency released a new poll that found 55 percent of immigrants and minorities – especially Roma gypsies and Africans – think that “discrimination based on ethnic origin is widespread in their country.” Of those asked, 37 percent say they faced discrimination in the past year, but 80 percent of those people acknowledged they did not report the problem to police.

Many of the 23,500 people from across the 27-nation EU said that they have experienced discrimination in the last year when looking for work or trying to get a bank loan.

Meanwhile, some non-government organizations (NGOs) expressed disgruntlement Wednesday that the early adoption of a final declaration had undercut their role in the process. In theory, their views – voiced from the gallery for a few minutes each day – are supposed to help shape the text into a better document.

In this case, the document is now sealed. So their speeches, which began late Wednesday after all states had had their moment at the rostrum, were rendered less effective – merely for the historical record.

“It’s minimizing the role of civil society,” says Jan Lonn, coordinator of the “Civil Society Forum” that was held the weekend just before the conference. “The fact that NGOs were marginalized here will be the impetus to work that much harder.”

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