Obama boycotts anti-racism conference

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ENEVA, Apr 17 (IPS) – The United Nations anti-racism conference will begin next Monday in a climate of uncertainty, despite last-minute diplomatic negotiations that managed to iron out differences that separated at least two blocs: Western and Muslim states.

But the agreements reached in hammering out the draft declaration to be adopted at next week’s conference do not ensure that the understanding will last throughout the entire five-day meeting in Geneva, said civil society sources.

In particular, there is a great deal of expectation surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s plan to speak at the opening of the conference. Iran was one of the countries that took the hardest-line stance in the deliberations of the draft declaration, only joining the consensus at the last moment.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay refused to comment on the possibility that Ahmadinejad’s speech could modify the outcome of the conference. "I cannot prejudge what he will say," she said.

"At the end of the day, what is truly important about this conference is the outcome document and whether it takes us forward in the struggle against racism," said Pillay. "And I appreciate the significance that Iran is one of the states which is part of this consensus. "

The prevailing impression among NGOs was that the governments of Muslim countries had given in to practically all of the western nations’ demands, which had jeopardised the success of the Durban Review Conference.

The aim of next week’s meeting is to assess progress on and implementation of the declaration and programme of action agreed at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

The Cuban delegation, speaking in the name of the Non-Aligned Movement, said "artificial pressures and veiled threats have stood in the way of a more inclusive text."

Complaining that sacrifices were made on fundamental issues for the purpose of reaching a compromise text, the Havana delegation said they would have preferred a more ambitious declaration.

Pillay also used the term "sacrifices," underscoring the "extremely good cooperation from the states which belong to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC)".

"In particular I would like to highlight the role of Palestine, which for the purpose of reaching a consensus and advancing the agenda of racism, decided to sacrifice their own issues which are important to them. So that's why you will not find a reference to the Middle East in this document" adopted Friday by the conference preparatory committee, said the high commissioner.

"It was that kind of sacrifice on the part of states that led to this consensus," she added.

Ibrahim Salama, an expert in the office of the high commissioner, said "the two main stumbling blocks initially when this process started were the Middle East and the defamation of religions."

The problem of the Middle East was indirectly avoided by the first paragraph of the draft declaration, which reaffirms the Durban declaration and programme of action, he said.

The Durban outcome document had dedicated a special paragraph to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for an end to the violence, the prompt renewal of talks, respect for international humanitarian law and human rights, and respect for the right to self-determination.

With regard to the question of defamation of religion, Salama said the OIC "was very constructive" to agree to act on the basis of the concept of incitement to religious hatred.

Pakistan, which spoke in the name of the OIC, said the group had made "important sacrifices" to contribute to the elimination of racial discrimination.

After reading the draft declaration, civil society sources wondered whether the concessions made by Muslim countries would suffice to do away with the criticism voiced by the United States, which was absent from the deliberations on the draft declaration and had refused, along with Israel, to recognise the resolutions adopted in Durban in 2001.

In a statement this week, the U.S. State Department welcomed the "recent progress that has been made through the efforts of many delegations, governments and officials in the formulation of the draft outcome document for the Durban Review Conference".

"There remain, however, elements of the current draft text that continue to pose significant concerns," it added.

The statement mentioned the first paragraph of the draft text, that "reaffirms" the Durban declaration and programme of action, which the United States never accepted.

But the text approved Friday says it "reaffirms" those two documents "as adopted" at the 2001 conference – in other words, without U.S. adhesion.

The other point of concern to the United States, and to other Western nations – "restrictions on freedom of expression that could result from some of the document's language related to ‘incitement’ to religious hatred," as the State Department communiqué says – was also overcome by the new draft declaration, which eliminated the reference to "defamation of religion."

"The difficulties that they (the U.S.) anticipated have been removed," said Pillay, who added that "it is my hope that when they see this document, it will have some influence on the U.S."

Canada, another country that has marked its distance from the negotiations for the Durban Review Conference, drew criticism from Terry Downey, a trade unionist with the Canadian Labour Congress, who spoke on behalf of a coalition of Canadian civil society organisations committed to combating racism.

"Racial inequalities in Canada are on the rise, and as economic conditions continue to deteriorate, members of racialised and aboriginal communities will experience disproportionate forms of racism," said Downey.

"We consider the Canadian government’s shameful withdrawal (from the conference) as a failure to its U.N. obligations," he added.

Adrien-Claude Zoller, president of the NGO Geneva for Human Rights, commented to IPS that "We simply hope that it is one step forward in the campaign against racism and racial discrimination, to come closer to implementation on the ground, which has not happened since 2001." No country has made any progress at all on this front, he added. (END/2009)

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