Press Releases

    22 May 2001


    NEW YORK, 21 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the speech by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, which she delivered today to the opening in Geneva of the Second Preparatory Committee Meeting for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Mrs. Robinson is the Secretary-General of the World Conference which will be held in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September:

    Today marks a critical point in the build-up to the World Conference in Durban. Today we start the final phase of preparation. A great deal of work has been done since I addressed the first preparatory committee meeting last May. We can all share a sense of achievement at the outcome of the regional meetings, the expert seminars, the work at national level. These did not succeed by chance –- they were the product of a lot of effort and commitment on the part of a large number of people, including many of you present today. That should be a source of pride for all of us.

    Now we must look forward to Durban and the most intensive phase of our work.

    I should say straightaway that I feel a lot still remains to be achieved. Progress on drafting the final declaration and programme of action has been slower than many had hoped. With less than four months to go before the World Conference the text before us still requires a great deal of work. That makes your contribution over the coming weeks vital. I am counting on every delegate, every State, every regional group to bring a constructive approach to this preparatory committee so that as much progress as possible is made over the next fortnight.

    Delegates, it seems to me that we face a choice here. We can take the narrow view and argue every detail right up to Durban. But that will not set the scene for a successful conference, quite the contrary.

    The alternative is to follow the path that has been the hallmark of every successful world conference -- to look for common ground. I am convinced that consensus positions can be found on much of the text under discussion to which all delegations can rally. The challenge which faces us over the next weeks is to identify these areas of consensus and rationalize them into agreed text. Of course there will not be agreement on everything. Some issues will call for extra effort to resolve through further consultations after the Prepcom or perhaps at Durban itself. But let us use the coming weeks to distinguish between what can be agreed on by all and to narrow down the critical issues and paragraphs which call for special attention.

    That would be the best use of our time and would set the scene for a successful conference. The choice we face has not only to do with drafting; it concerns the sort of event we want Durban to be. I know what I would like it to be: a serious and honest addressing of the past realities of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance combined with a reinvigorated commitment to address the contemporary scourges. I would like us to achieve a breakthrough in perceptions about racism and shape a new vision which will embrace the diversity of the human family in the future.

    The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had a similar task -– crafting a shared vision for the future. We can draw inspiration from their commitment to address the immediate past of devastating war and move forward, embracing different views, finding common ground. Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have ended each night with a prayer: "show us a vision of a world made new". Human rights have given us that vision. Durban gives us the opportunity, at the start of a new century, to help bring about a "world made new".

    We must never lose sight of those who are victims of racism and racial discrimination and who will be looking to the Durban Conference to help bring about real change in their lives. As I reflect on the past year it is this human dimension which remains at the forefront of my mind. The human dimension was present in distinctive ways at all of the regional preparatory meetings.

    In Strasbourg the chief focus was on the big increase in the movement of people from the poor countries to the rich, developed countries. I deplored the fact that so many who come to Europe receive a cold or even hostile reception, indeed, are hardly treated as human beings. Manifestations of racism and xenophobia have become commonplace. I noted that in some ways the problem is the same as it ever was: hatred based on fear -– fear of economic competition, fear of loss of identity. In other respects, the patterns of modern racism are worryingly different, with racial attacks in countries enjoying economic prosperity and racism appearing in parts of Europe where it had not been evident before.

    At the African regional meeting in Dakar I paid homage to the millions of children, women and men who have been the victims of slavery. No other continent has had such a widespread and prolonged struggle to fight racism in the form of apartheid and no other continent has borne the brunt of racism as much as Africa. That legacy of racism, colonialism and slavery is an issue which the Durban Conference must tackle head on with a view to coming to terms with the past, the better to face into the future. I also recall the discussion at the Addis Ababa regional expert seminar about the very high level of conflict which Africa has seen and which continues to this day, with an appalling toll in human misery. I urged that attention be paid to combating racism in the context of devising preventive strategies to head off ethnic conflicts.

    In Santiago I was struck by the great cultural and racial diversity which distinguishes the Americas and which is a source of pride for many. At the same time, I was acutely conscious of the voices of those -– the poor and the marginalised -- who have been left out. Despite the enormous technological, industrial and agricultural achievements, structural inequalities in wealth and income and the close association between racial discrimination and extreme poverty define many of the problems of racism and xenophobia in the Americas and the Caribbean. An issue that emerged clearly at Santiago was the need for greater attention to those of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean. I drew particular attention also to the situation of indigenous peoples. The colonial conquest resulted in massive loss of life of the indigenous inhabitants of the region, the loss of their lands, forced conversion to foreign religions, and attempts to suppress indigenous languages and cultures. The sufferings of indigenous peoples endure to this day. The Durban conference and the establishment of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues offer them real hope of recognition and of change.

    The chief message I sought to convey at the Teheran meeting was the pervasive nature of racism and the danger of denial. I pointed out that no region, no country and no community can claim to be free from racism and intolerance. Acceptance of that fact is the first step towards addressing the problem. A particular concern in the region –- as it is for all of us -- is the rise in trafficking in human beings. Women migrants are especially vulnerable. Isolated from their own community and family, they can be exposed to violence or other forms of abuse and usually have little or no means of remedy or redress at their disposal. The plight of migrant and trafficked women and the whole nexus of gender and racism are legitimate topics for the Durban Conference to consider.

    I feel I should mention, too, the regional expert seminar held in Warsaw last July, which had as its theme the protection of minorities and other vulnerable groups. This is an issue which has relevance within and beyond the Eastern European region. Preventing discrimination against, and protecting the rights of persons belonging to national, ethnic and religious minorities, of indigenous populations, refugees and migrants -- these are challenges that face all of the international community. The Warsaw seminar also focused on another important topic for Durban: how to improve the situation of the Roma, Sinti and Traveller communities.

    The preparatory meetings for Durban have raised our awareness of the extensive ways in which racism and xenophobia blight peoples’ lives. Among the ugly examples of racism in daily life which we hear about regularly in the media or which have become so routine as to hardly merit a mention are: assaults and killings on racist grounds, attacks on places of worship -- be they churches, temples, synagogues or mosques -- racism in the workplace, racist attitudes among law enforcement officers, racial profiling, discrimination in housing and access to social facilities, the list is long.

    Can we not look to the Durban Conference to confront these issues and to come up with a blueprint for how to address them more effectively? Is that not what this conference should be about?

    As I read the document which has been assembled after the last meeting of the open-ended working group, I was struck by the number of areas of agreement rather than of difference:

    The draft declaration and programme of action have had their first reading, though it must be said that the discussions so far have added greatly to the length of the document.

    Many of the issues under discussion are not controversial and can command broad agreement. Who could argue against the urgency of identifying practical ways of helping the victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, including all those categories of victims referred to at the regional preparatory meetings? Who will say that we should not step up measures of prevention, education and protection at the national, regional and international levels? Would anyone seriously oppose the strengthening of our strategies to achieve full and effective equality, including international cooperation and enhancement of the United Nations and other international mechanisms to combat racism?

    The measures to combat racism at national, regional and international level encompass such areas as racism on the Internet, the role of the media, racism and poverty, the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and youth, the gender perspective, children, disadvantaged groups, the issues surrounding migration, trafficking, asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), as well as other disadvantaged groups. I am confident it is well within our capabilities to find language to map out strategies to deal with all of these issues and to find appropriate remedies.

    All must agree that provision for effective follow up to the World Conference is essential, including measures to monitor ratification of relevant instruments and especially the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and full implementation by all States. We can also agree to strengthen national mechanisms which seek to promote the fight against racism.

    Education that promotes tolerance and celebrates diversity is a vital instrument in the fight against racism and xenophobia. I am sure that there will be broad support for stepping up educational activities at all levels –- of children and young people especially but also appropriate training of persons in areas such as law enforcement, the courts and public employees.

    In the area of remedies, recourse, redress, compensatory and other measures for victims of racism constructive suggestions have been put forward. I feel that we can find common ground.

    Chairperson, the challenge for us is clear. I believe that together we can find language which adequately expresses the shared will of the international community in regard to all of these matters and which takes account of the concerns of all delegates. But the clock is ticking. A number of procedural proposals have been made with the aim of expediting the preparatory work. I urge that these be approached in a constructive manner.

    As I said already, some issues of particular sensitivity have emerged which we will probably have to carry forward for discussion in Durban. All that I will say at this stage is to stress again my hope that Durban will be seen as having marked a breakthrough in approaches to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; that all States will confront the crimes and unjust practices of the past together, and that ways will be identified to address these issues comprehensively. I want to see a World Conference which sets a new context for the struggle to combat racism, which fosters reconciliation and which is forward looking. At the Millennium Summit, States committed themselves "to eliminate the increasing acts of racism and xenophobia in many societies and to promote greater harmony in all societies". That is the objective we should keep before us and we should not allow current pressures, however serious, to hinder the process by introducing language contrary to a forward looking, conciliatory spirit.

    I am glad to be able to report that the practical arrangements for the World Conference are well in train. I would like to pay tribute to the Government of South Africa for the professionalism of its approach. I believe that a close, cooperative relationship has been established with my Office which bodes well for the organization of the conference’s work. I appeal to delegates to ensure that adequate financial support is made available to the Government of South Africa in response to its generous gesture in hosting the conference.

    An NGO Forum is being organized by the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) from 28 August to 1 September. Recognizing the vital importance of civil society’s role in the Conference, funding will be made available to several hundred non-governmental organizations to enable them to participate at the Forum and in the conference itself.

    A wide range of special events is planned for Durban:

    There will be a Special Forum on the Voices of Victims and a media dialogue on racism and indigenous peoples. A Youth Summit will be held in Durban on 27 August in collaboration with several major youth groups and SANGOCO. Representatives of Treaty Bodies, Special Mechanisms and National Institutions will all participate in panels and other events. Inter-agency consultations are taking place with members of the United Nations family; events highlighting children, gender dimensions of racial discrimination, racism in the workplace, human rights and development are being planned with the cooperation of United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), International Labour Organization, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and others. There will be a high-level panel on the role of the private sector in fostering diversity, set in the framework of the Secretary-General’s Global Compact initiative. The Inter-Parliamentary Union will hold a one-day meeting of parliamentarians on hate speech. Academic institutions including the International Sociological Association and the University of Peace plan to hold round-table sessions. And a number of exhibitions and cultural events will focus on racism.

    On the information front, I believe that the importance of the Durban Conference is beginning to be understood by the international community, but I am aware that much more needs to be done. I ask delegates to continue to impress on national governments the importance of highlighting the conference and bringing it to the attention of the public and the media. For our part, we will be stepping up our public information activities over the coming months. I would like to bring to your attention that on Friday 1 June my Office is organizing a free concert against racism in Plain Palais here in Geneva. Details of the concert will be circulated this week and I urge all delegates to come along and support it.

    It is within our power to make Durban a groundbreaking event that really changes peoples’ lives. Moving away from our differences, getting along better -– these are not the key issues for Durban. The issues at stake are more fundamental: what should we do in every community, in every nation and in the community of nations to create a new context where everyone is treated fairly, equally and with dignity, irrespective of colour, race, gender, nationality or religious belief? Durban must summon up our collective will to make genuine respect for the dignity of every individual and equal opportunities for all a reality. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said here a month ago:

    "We . . . human beings are created for fellowship, for togetherness, for family, for community, for interdependence, for complementarity . . . We should celebrate our diversity, we should exult in our differences as making not for separation and alienation and hostility but for their glorious opposites . . . here is room for everyone; there is room for every culture, race, language and point of view."

    The challenge we face at Durban will be to conclude a declaration and programme of action which live up to these high ideals.

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