Note to Correspondents

Note No 121
7 February


NEW YORK, 6 February (UN Headquarters) -- At the end of the Second World War, "we said never again", to genocide, but unfortunately there is genocide again, terrible ethnic cleansing and the rise of Nazi-like movements among youths, which, if not addressed, could be very, very worrying trends for the future, Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told correspondents this afternoon at a Headquarters press briefing.

Appealing to journalists for their support at the World Conference against Racism, to be held from 31 August to 7 September in Durban, South Africa, Ms. Robinson warned that if there was not a narrowing of divides that were opening up, increasing tensions and fractures would continue to emerge. The conference would address the root causes of conflict and seek a genuine condemnation of slavery and a recognition of how unacceptable and dehumanizing it was.

Entitled the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the Summit would address the "collective trauma" of the past in which developed countries colonized and enslaved developing ones. The Durban Summit was "a kind of catharsis" to set the new century on a course based on principles of non-discrimination, tolerance, and diversity. The world had not yet found a language or a means with which to do that, Ms. Robinson said, adding that the conference could chart a political way of doing so.

Ms. Robinson had participated in the preparatory process, and she said she was beginning to see the emergence of some very interesting issues, including ethnic conflict in Africa, the plight of the indigenous peoples in Santiago, discrimination in Warsaw, and trafficking in Bangkok. At a series of regional meetings, she had had the opportunity to observe the difficulty with which countries addressed the real roots of so much conflict and tension in societies. There were encouraging trends. At the preparatory meeting in Strasbourg, issues concerning "fortress Europe" were raised, particularly in the context of discrimination against travelers and other minorities. That meeting had produced a practical plan of action.

At a meeting last week in Stockholm to address issues of intolerance, participants from Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East expressed shock over a film depicting the growth of right-wing parties, she said. An Asian conference, to take place later in the month, would be followed by a range of practical recommendations to be taken at the Durban Conference, as well as political issues to be negotiated. The issues would also be taken up, once again, in the next session of the Commission on Human Rights. The next Durban Preparatory Committee meeting will be held from 21 May to 1 June, at which most of the agenda would likely be approved. It would likely include the need to address at the conference Issues of cross-sectional racism, gender-based racism, racism and exclusion, racism and HIV/AIDS, and a programme of remedies for victims.

Past exploitations, such as slavery and the impact of colonialism in certain regions, would also dominate upcoming preparatory discussions. Such discussions would likely be politically charged and factor in the formulation of a final document in Durban. Regional meetings attended by the Secretary-General and heads of regional organizations considered the roots of conflicts. Indeed, "we can’t prevent conflicts or have a strategy of prevention unless we’re prepared to address them", she said. At the conclusion of the African regional conference in Dakar, two practical initiatives had been taken, including a decision to remain in contact with representatives of a network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and enlist correspondents’ active support aimed at forming a network of journalists’ covering of the Durban Conference.

The conference, she continued, would address some difficult issues that some countries preferred not to confront. Indeed, some nations were "in denial" about the serious problems confronting them, such as racism, xenophobia and intolerance. At the same time, those issues were absolutely crucial to the protection of human rights, combating gender-based racism and resolving the issues of minorities, migrants and indigenous peoples.

Asked if she had any suggestions for lawmakers in Europe who were attempting to curb, if not prevent, the influx of refugees and immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere, she said she was concerned about some parts of that debate. When the debate turns to a review of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, she became very worried indeed. It was time to reinforce the framework that had been built for the protection of refugees and asylum seeks. National laws should be reinforced and populations should be educated about respect. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team was marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Convention by focusing on respect that went beyond tolerance to valuing.

There were two different pressures, she went on. One concerned the fact that there was increased migration into Europe amid an increasing tendency towards a "fortress Europe". That was taking place at a time when it did not make any economic sense, given that the demographic trends on the continent indicated that it needed both skilled and unskilled labour from outside Europe. Real political leadership was needed, therefore, to create an environment conducive to acceptance of greater numbers of "outsiders" in furtherance of its economic and social development. At the same time, she was concerned about the level of criminal activity in areas where security was somewhat lax, such as in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where there was trafficking of women and children in what could be called a "modern form of slavery".

Was she satisfied with the representation at the regional preparatory meetings, and specifically, to what extent would the Kurds be represented at the meeting in Teheran? another correspondent asked.

She said it was certainly her concern to ensure that at regional preparatory meetings there was particularly broad participation of NGOs, including those accredited to the Economic and Security Council, as well as just to the World Conference. Clearly, the Iranian Government had recognized that NGOs would be able to participate fully at the conference. She had assumed that there would be Kurdish NGOs participating, as well as NGOs from other regions.

To another question, she said that the Stockholm conference, had addressed the issue of combating intolerance and the rise in racism and xenophobia against the "stranger" in relatively stable and advanced European countries. Undoubtedly, that issue could be very easily exploited. The focus should be on political leadership, specifically on not having issues concerning migration or asylum seekers be divisive issues during local elections.

Certainly, the economic rationale was not there - Europe needed between 50 million and 70 million migrants, both skilled and unskilled, for its economic development, she said. There were complex trends. More attention was being paid in Europe to managed migration to ensure that migrants coming in were not situated in large numbers in already economically deprived areas where tensions could develop.

Another correspondent asked Ms. Robinson what kind of pledges she was seeking at the Durban Conference.

She said that participants at the two preparatory sessions had said they were looking for a real condemnation of slavery and a recognition at the beginning of the century of how unacceptable, dehumanizing and contrary to dignity it was. There should be measures to address that; how to do so was complicated. There had been a kind of collective trauma of the past, in which developed countries had enslaved and colonized other countries. That, too, should be addressed. The Durban Conference should be seen as "a kind of catharsis". In order to build more of a global village or one human family, it was extremely important that those issues be addressed, given the acutely different perceptions. When attending the African conference, she saw the reluctance in some to address those issues in the presence of observers from other countries. That had been a measure of how the psychological traumas of the past still bore on the countries.

With respect to some country’s "deep denial", was the problem of migrants in Europe one such example? another correspondent asked.

The denial factor had emerged in the differing perceptions of what should be addressed at the World Conference, she responded. If countries took a narrow approach that the issue was racism, black and white, then those countries could say that they did not have that problem, but if the problem was described as discrimination against minorities within a country, such as in Asia or Eastern Europe, they would have to confront that. The preparatory meeting in Africa had been very useful, as that was the first time those countries were looking at issues of racism and not focusing on apartheid. That had been a very significant step forward. The conference itself, promised to be very broad, but sometimes the perceptions of what it would be about were very narrow.

Was a small country like Chechnya meriting the attention of the conference? a corespondent asked.

She said she had visited Chechnya and reported to the last Human Rights Commission, as she would do again, on the human rights situation there. Further investigation was needed on the continuing stream of alleged human rights violations. That issue was relevant to the conference, which would warrant certain helpful recommendations.

To a related question about Africa, she said that the realization had been emerging that when the international community looked at harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation, that one could not successfully preach from the outside. That kind of practice had to be worked on from within the community or the village, particularly with women, whose empowerment was the way to address that issue. Women’s empowerment had also had an impact on men in the village in terms of their relationships. Restoring the full human dignity of women must be done in a cultural as well as a legal way.

Another correspondent, noting that news budgets had tightened world-wide, asked what the conference expected to achieve, and in light of the vast, sprawling nature of the issue, why should the news media cover it?

She said that the conference was a very important one for victims of discrimination and exclusion. It would likely produce an entire range of practical measures to address the issues of marginalization. It would also "bring home" the necessary values of tolerance and diversity, which were needed to ensure globalization benefits for all. It would be a conference that addressed the roots of conflict, which the Organization was trying more and more to prevent. It would also address steps to be taken to reduce tensions and provide remedies, including education, and put in place legislation that outlawed discrimination. It was the first world conference with such a broad agenda on that issue. The first two were narrower, on racism and discrimination, and had not addressed the issues of xenophobia or intolerance. So, it would be a very key conference.

Conscious of the need to mount a much more robust media and awareness-raising campaign, she said the conference was creating a whole new constituency of NGOs. Age and race were two reasons for discrimination; combine racism, disability and questions concerning indigenous people, and the conference would be energizing. It was possible to build a constituency against racism, intolerance and xenophobia; it would be helpful to have a network of committed journalists to get out the message.

Another correspondent asked about talk that the United States might not table a resolution criticizing China’s human rights situation?

Ms. Robinson said she was not aware of any specific decision in that regard. With respect to her own work in China, she had related her concerns to the Chinese Government upon her visit in October 2000 about its continuing human rights violations and restrictions on political and religious expression, and freedom of association.

What did she think about the British Home Secretary’s suggestion today that the United Nations Convention on Refugees should be rewritten in order to create a category of countries where people could only apply for asylum from their home country rather than upon their arrival in another?

She said she would be very concerned about any reformulation or re-opening of the 1951 Convention. That was an extremely important instrument that lay at the core of the work of UNHCR, and such a debate could trigger worry about the receptiveness towards genuine refugees and asylum seekers. Many countries, including Ireland, should do more to improve procedures for receiving refugees and asylum seekers. Yes, there was the very serious problem of criminal and illegal trafficking of persons. More managed migration, particularly in Europe, was needed, but she had not favoured re-opening the Convention, particularly now.

Asked about the regional issues that topped the conference agenda, she said that the Durban Conference should be seen as a potential "magna carta" for victims. That was potentially a real Charter for those who were victims of actual discrimination, exclusion and marginalization.

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