3 September 2001


NEW YORK, 31 August (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of an address today by Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, at the opening of the Conference in Durban, South Africa:

Today marks the start of an event which many people have worked long and hard for over many months. To all who contributed and especially to the people of Durban and South Africa I say a warm "thank you".

We have come a long way to Durban. Indeed, it has been a bumpy road. I recall the first formal event of the Conference 18 months ago -- an expert seminar in Geneva on Remedies Available to the Victims of Acts of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and Good National Practices in the Field. We have come a long way since then in building up our understanding of racism in the modern world. There have been four regional conferences, five expert seminars and three sessions of the Preparatory Committee. There have been lengthy drafting sessions, and events of every description have taken place in every part of the world with the focus on the themes of Durban.

We have come a long way psychologically and substantively too. Our journey to Durban has helped to shape thinking about who the victims of racism and discrimination are, what sort of remedies can be made available and the best kinds of preventive measures. When the balance sheet is drawn up for the Conference, the greater understanding which has been achieved of the sources, causes of and remedies for racism must weigh heavily in its favour.

At the same time, this was never going to be an easy Conference. Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome. There is a tendency to say "We don’t have those problems in our country". It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices and biases.

And we should not be surprised that the negotiations have been difficult. The issues we are addressing here confront us at so many levels, nationally, regionally, locally. They are among the most sensitive the United Nations and the international community have to deal with. It is worth remembering this over the coming week.

We should remember, too, that we cannot solve all of the world’s problems at Durban.

A theme I have been stressing is that we all belong to one human family. Families don’t agree on everything. But they agree on certain fundamentals, and that is what makes families strong. What I am asking all of you is that we agree on the fundamental aims of this Conference, not that we try to sort out all the problems on the international agenda.

One thing that is clearer to me after the preparations of the past 18 months is how badly we need new strategies to fight racism and intolerance in the modern world. To those who say we do not need a world conference on this subject I say "Look around you". How much misery, inequality, conflict is caused by racism and discrimination? From a human rights point of view, this Conference is crucially important. Equality and non-discrimination are central to the pursuit of human rights.

Success at Durban should be measured by whether or not the outcome brings effective remedies and relief to the victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

I have also learned how closely contemporary forms of racism are bound up with the past. I believe this Conference could mark a historic breakthrough in the struggle against racism if agreement could be reached on language that recognizes historic injustices and expresses deep remorse for the crimes of the past. If we can do that, it will connect with millions of people worldwide and affirm their human dignity. It will connect in the way that poetry connects and will be heard by that inner ear.

We must focus attention on outcomes and forward strategies. In some respects the journey proper will only begin after we leave Durban. That is when the real test will come of what we have achieved over these months of preparation and at the Conference itself.

Durban will only be a landmark if there is substantial text adopted here and meaningful follow-up. The task which we must achieve before we leave is to have a clear understanding about the follow up which must be accomplished, about who is responsible for the necessary actions and how we can measure progress.

I call on every government representative to ensure that the responsibilities of States in the fight against racism and discrimination are fully understood and acted on as the Secretary-General has urged through national programmes or plans of action.

I call on intergovernmental organizations to play their part to ensure that the aims of this Conference are reflected in their own activities, and that they vigorously monitor the commitments that will be made here.

As far as the United Nations role is concerned, the participatory process has made it clear that the United Nations must not only continue its historic fight against discrimination, but must intensify that struggle. We have heard at length from those who are hurting, from those who are the victims of injustice, and from those in quest of dignity and equality. I have already drawn firm conclusions from this and I shall establish an anti-discrimination unit reporting directly to me to take follow-up action on the insights we have already gained, on the implementation of your recommendations and to maintain common cause and mobilization with civil society. I shall be consulting with Member States at the forthcoming General Assembly on how we can take forward processes to follow up on the practical proposals that have come out of the various regional conferences and expert meetings.

I cannot overstate the role of civil society in the follow-up process. I look particularly to non-governmental organizations, the international youth forum formed here in Durban and civil society generally to take up the challenge of Durban and form a global alliance with governments to carry the struggle forward. The impression I have is that non-governmental organizations are, indeed, rising to the challenge and are aware of how vital is the fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Three things I would ask for in the week ahead from all parties and especially from delegates:

-- the first is generosity of spirit. It is no small issue we are dealing with in Durban: it is no time to be small-minded.

-- secondly, I call for flexibility and a willingness to meet the views of others. Progress can only be made on that basis and the urgency of devising new strategies to combat racism and discrimination requires it.

-- finally, I would appeal for a sense of vision. I remain convinced that this can be a defining moment for the international community, that we have the capacity at the start of this century to work for a better and fairer world.

We can draw inspiration from the African concept of Ubuntu, that ancient term which embraces humaneness, caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of the world. When he came to Geneva last April, Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained how the concept represents the opposite of being selfish and self-centred. Ubuntu empowers everyone to be valued, to reach their full potential while remaining in accord with everything and everyone around them.

This spirit is reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when it speaks of "the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family". The Universal Declaration proclaims that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights … and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood". Some of you, like me, would rather call it a spirit of sisterhood. But whether brotherhood or sisterhood, let that spirit inform our discussions over the coming week as we strive for a world where the principles of equality and non-discrimination are honoured, not merely in words, but in fact.

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Durban, South Africa
31 August - 7 September 2001