No society is immune against racism

Opinion piece
Durban anti-racism conference outcome
By Navanethem Pillay
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


The UN anti-racism review conference was held in Geneva this week and the world did not stop turning, as the conference’s detractors wanted us to believe. In fact, the world might be a better place now that the conference approved by consensus a document that builds on the commitments made in Durban eight years ago to combat racial discrimination and intolerance all over the world.


Despite decades of advocacy, despite the efforts of many groups and many nations, despite ample evidence of racism’s terrible toll, racism persists. No society is immune, large or small, rich or poor. The conference in Geneva was an opportunity for all nations to come together and agree on a common document enshrining a common aspiration: to defy racism in all its manifestations and work to stamp it out.

Yet a number of voices had advocated a boycott of the review conference for well over a year, long before a single word was put to paper. This opposition was for the most part based on fears that the Geneva meeting would trigger a repetition of the virulent anti-Semitic activities of some non-governmental organizations at the margins of the 2001 World Conference in Durban. The odious actions of a few had tainted the reputation of the entire process from Durban in 2001 to the conference in Geneva in 2009.

Ten UN Member States, including Canada, Israel, the US, Australia, New Zealand and five of the 27 EU countries, decided to stay away from the Geneva gathering which the UN General Assembly had called to review the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), the final document of the 2001 conference.

The absence of these countries loomed large when, on the first day of the conference, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech attacking Israel, the US, and other western States, effectively using this UN forum for partisan political rhetoric.

However, such divisive stance was roundly rejected the following day with the adoption by consensus of a document that is the final word of the conference. Member States showed their determination, spirit of compromise and respect for diversity to move as one on a common and very urgent cause. This agreement will hopefully have lasting beneficial effects for the countless victims of racism, discrimination and intolerance worldwide.

In the document, States undertook to prevent manifestations of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, especially in relation to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. States also agreed to promote greater participation and opportunities for people of African and Asian decent, indigenous peoples and individuals belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. They committed to ensure that discrimination would not overtly or covertly hamper access to employment, social services, health care and participation in other spheres of life. Multiple forms of discrimination will also be tackled.

The document reaffirms the fundamental importance of freedom of expression and stresses its compatibility with existing international law that prohibits incitement to hatred. This should help bridge the artificial divide on sensitive issues related to religions which could fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy of clashes of civilization.

Moreover, the outcome document represents an important recognition of the injustice and atrocities of the past and proposes means to prevent their recurrence. These include a commitment to prohibit violent, racist and xenophobic activities by groups that embrace supremacist ideologies.

The Durban review conference has provided a platform for a new beginning. The few States that chose to stay away should now evaluate the outcome document on its own merit and substance. Many of these States participated in its drafting and were part of the emerging consensus up until the very eve of the conference. This is why I am hopeful that they will rejoin international efforts to combat racism and intolerance as laid out in this important document.

We should not concede ground to those who are intent on stirring controversy that contributes to intolerance. Thus, it is all the more crucial for us--men and women of good will, States, international organizations, and civil society alike--not to get distracted from the main objective: to nurture discrimination-free societies and a world of equal treatment and opportunity for all of us, or at the very least for our children, and our children’s children.

Source: UN Information Service Vienna