2 April 2001


NEW YORK, 30 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of an address today by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva:

It is a pleasure to join you today.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose decision not to seek a second term I respect, but greatly regret. Her tenure has seen important achievements. She has raised global awareness of the oft-neglected economic, social and cultural rights, and in particular the right to development.

Despite meagre funding, she has expanded the global presence of the Office of the High Commissioner. And she has been a forceful advocate of all human rights for all people, especially for the most vulnerable members of the human community.

I would like to assure you that the High Commissioner and I will seek in the months ahead to continue this progress and, in particular, to ensure the success of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Already, regional preparatory meetings have been held in Dakar, Santiago, Strasbourg and Tehran. Expert seminars have taken place in different parts of the world. The High Commissioner has presented elements for a draft Declaration and Programme of Action, which, taken together with the outcomes of the regional meetings, should provide a good basis for further discussions. Our non-governmental partners are hard at work. And the public has begun to pay attention, as some of the more contentious issues make their way into the headlines.

This is a crucial moment. It is time to consider what message we want the conference to send. It is time to bridge the differences that have emerged. And it is time to focus on ensuring that the conference does for the word "Durban" what the Earth Summit did for "Rio de Janeiro": make it synonymous with a vision of progress for all humankind.

Racism and intolerance plague all countries -- scarring our societies, marring our work for peace.

Some discrimination is all-too-familiar. Women are targeted for rape during war, for exploitation at work and for abuse at home. Immigrants are attacked, and their customs are mocked. School textbooks often ignore the contributions, or even the existence, of indigenous peoples. State spending frequently neglects the needs of minorities. Mass media are sometimes used to spread false and ugly stereotypes. Politicians – democrats, as well as dictators -- use race-based appeals to seek and maintain power.

In the past decade or so, we have seen new types of intolerance, new targets, and new tools with which to spread it. People with HIV or AIDS have been ostracized. Although human beings have always been on the move, the intensified cross-border movements associated with globalization are seen by some as a threat, prompting a retreat from openness. And the Internet, a tool with extraordinary power to educate and enlighten, can also be a high-tech messenger of hateful words and dehumanizing imagery.

All of this is deeply troubling in itself, as well as a hindrance to development. It is also a perfect breeding ground for armed conflict and massive flows of refugees and displaced persons, as we have seen repeatedly over the past decade. People who are excluded or marginalized, who are denied legitimate channels to participate and feel at home in their society, and whose attempts at peaceful protest are met with repression, often end up resorting to extreme measures, including violence.

The United Nations has mounted a vigorous response. Almost all peacekeeping operations in recent years have had human rights components. Our development agencies focus heavily on good governance and the rule of law. The General Assembly has proclaimed this year the "Year of Dialogue among Civilizations". The International Criminal Tribunals have sought to fight impunity, and to promote justice and accountability. Within a short period of time, we hope to see the International Criminal Court come into effect.

These steps have made an important start in turning the tide. Still, it is less than a decade since apartheid was abolished, and the world is not yet free of bondage and forced labour.

The Holocaust should have demonstrated, once and for all, the nightmare of totalitarian power wedded to perverse and hateful theories of racial superiority. But in the last decade we have again witnessed genocide, as well as the growth of far-right parties with overt or covert racist programmes.

And while we have built up an impressive array of laws, institutions and independent watchdog groups, the people who suffer most from the denial of their human rights are often unaware of their rights, and beyond the reach of these mechanisms. So we must take our efforts to a higher level. That is the heavy burden facing the World Conference.

Despite what some critics say, I am convinced that world conferences are not a waste of time or money. The United Nations conferences of the 1990s have given the people of the world a series of dynamic blueprints for progress on key issues such as the environment, the advancement of women and, not least, human rights.

The World Conference against Racism has similar potential to reach deeply into the lives of people, and give them both help and hope. It can build upon the foundations provided by the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Let me stress here that it is crucial for States to cooperate with the Committee created by that Convention.

As we have seen from the regional meetings, the conference process also offers a pulpit from which to air grievances, share experiences, and bear witness. This platform is especially valuable for issues that do not normally receive a wide hearing.

Indeed, conferences allow us to become surrogate voices. We carry into the conference rooms the concerns of people who cannot speak for themselves, because they or their families are at risk, because they are in prison, or worse, because they have been killed or "disappeared". We bring the testimony of children.

Indeed, were this conference to be solely an exercise in raising public awareness and rousing the collective conscience, that would be reason enough to hold it.

But, of course, our main business is to redirect public policy, and leave a lasting imprint on the workings of governments. They are the main violators of human rights, and bear the main responsibility for promoting and protecting them. For that, we must look to the conference declaration and programme of action.

Language from conference documents often finds its way into national laws and constitutions. The documents inspire the creation of new institutions and new protections for human rights defenders. They help spur changes in curriculum, enabling us to start early in teaching tolerance and respect for diversity to our children.

The documents are strong statements of global solidarity and shared values. At their best, they are powerful tools of peaceful, fundamental change.

So I urge you all to work towards a solid, credible Declaration and Programme of Action. We need a document that looks unflinchingly at ourselves and at the flaws in the societies we have built. We need a forward-looking document that acknowledges and builds on the past, but does not get lost there. We need a document that all people can recognize as their own.

And we need a document that inspires all people, not just governments, to do their part. We would not be here today, nor will we make progress, without the involvement of civil society. The private sector, too, has a key role to play; one of the core principles I have asked companies to embrace in the Global Compact is to eliminate discrimination in hiring and in the workplace.

The work to achieve active tolerance will take years, if not generations. Living together in harmony is the fundamental human project. There are fine examples of real and lasting success in every part of the world. Let us emulate them. Thank you very much.

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