Troubled U.N. Racism Conference Quickly Adopts Outcome Document

By Patrick Goodenough | April 22, 2009 | 4:47 AM EDT

Israel and Italy are among 10 Western countries boycotting the Durban II racism conference in Geneva this week. (AP Photo)

( – Scrambling to salvage an international conference on racism before it unraveled further, U.N. officials pressed Tuesday for a quick adoption of the “outcome document” even though the event still has three days to run.
Although negotiators had formally agreed on the text before the “Durban II” conference opened in Geneva on Monday, in theory it could have been debated and amended further during the course of the week.
Evidently anxious to avoid a re-opening of contentious issues that have roiled the Durban process – and further embarrassment after Monday’s walkout during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel speech –  conference office-bearers recommended its immediate adoption.
Delegates then adopted the 16-page outcome document “by consensus.”
It reaffirms the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA), the outcome document of the 2001 racism conference held in South Africa, which singled out Israel for criticism, by identifying “Palestinian people under foreign occupation” as victims of racism.
The U.S. government based its decision not to attend this week’s conference on the fact that the outcome document embraced what it described as the “flawed” DDPA. Nine other Western countries also stayed away, citing concerns that the event would see a repeat of the anti-Israel sentiment that characterized the 2001 event.
The two issues that caused the most difficulty during the outcome document’s marathon drafting process were the attempt to label Israel an “apartheid” state and the push for measures to combat what Islamic states call “defamation of religion.”
Both issues were raised during Tuesday’s session.
Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Malik Amad Khan, said one of the most insidious forms of contemporary racism was the defamation of religions, and in particular, “Islamophobia.”
“While freedom of opinion is sacrosanct, it must not be exploited to defame any religion and to incite thereby violence against its followers,” he said.
Yemeni representative Abdulkarim al-Eryani said that freedom of expression must not be an excuse for incitement to hatred, and charged that Islam and its prophet had been insulted.
The foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad al-Malki, drew applause as he described Israel’s Palestinian policies as “the ugliest face of racism and racial discrimination.”
Representatives of Libya, Syria and Qatar also accused Israel of continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights, with Libyan envoy Adel Shaltut urging the inclusion in the final outcome document of a paragraph condemning Israeli policies.
Darfur silence
One conflict not raised during the conference so far – or mentioned in the outcome document – is the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region.

African protestors demonstrate outside the U.N. headquarters in Geneva on Tuesday, April 21, 2009. The crisis in Darfur does not feature in the outcome document adopted at the U.N. racism conference. (AP Photo)

Up to 300,000 people, according to U.N. estimates, have died in Darfur since fighting broke out in early 2003 between black African rebels and the Arab-dominated regime and allied militias. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir Sudanese for alleged crimes against humanity in Darfur but he has refused to cooperate.
Addressing Tuesday’s Durban II session, Khartoum’s deputy justice minister Abdel Daiem Zumrawi characterized Bashir as a victim of racism, selectivity and colonialist practices at the hands of the ICC and the U.N. Security Council, which referred the Darfur conflict to the tribunal.
Among other issues raised by delegates on Tuesday, Libya urged countries that had endured colonialism to seek apologies and compensation from former colonial powers. Cuba said that while racism was a problem everywhere it was worst in the “rich industrialized countries” of the North, and called for compensation for the descendants of the victims of slavery.
Monday’s opening of the week-long conference was dominated by the row over Ahmadinejad’s speech, in which he said the Holocaust was used as a “pretext” for the establishment of the state of Israel, and called its government “cruel, repressive and racist.”
More than 20 European Union delegations walked out in protest, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a rare rebuke criticized Ahmadinejad for using the conference “to accuse, divide and even incite.”
Afterwards, the Czech Republic, which holds the E.U. presidency, said it would not take part in the rest of the conference. Its departure took to 10 the number of countries boycotting. The others are the U.S., Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland and Germany.
After the text was adopted Tuesday, U.N. high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay denied that the step was taken hastily to preempt any further departures.
Replying to a question during a press briefing, she said this was not the case. The conference’s “main committee” considered the document to be ready for adoption and there was no reason to delay doing so, she said.
Pillay said the international community was called upon to continue the fight against “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
“I hope that those who decided to stay away from this conference will join the international community again soon in the fight against these scourges,” she added.
Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer called the early adoption of the outcome document step “highly unusual,” noting that U.N. conferences usually culminate with that step on the final day.
Amid concerns that “things would only get worse the longer it went on,” the early adoption was clearly intended “to end the embarrassment,” he wrote on a foundation Web site.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow