GENEVA - Top United Nations officials have issued
urgent appeals to governments around the world, exhorting them to
be more flexible in order to prevent the failure of the upcoming
World Conference against Racism.
''We are now at the stage where we need to begin reaching
agreements,'' stressed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Mary Robinson, Tuesday.
The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is set for Aug 31 to Sep 7 in
Durban, South Africa. But there is still no agreement on the
content of the final declaration or the program of action that
are to be adopted by the delegates to the conference.
Irreconcilable differences revolve around questions of
reparations for human rights abuses committed during slavery and
colonial eras, and of attempts to equate Zionism with racism.
The final attempt to hammer out agreements on these matters
will be in the hands of the preparatory committee during two weeks
of deliberations in Geneva, beginning Jul 30.
Robinson acknowledged that the drafting of the conference
declaration and program of action has not been a simple process.
The Group of 21, a body with the sole mission of conducting a
''technical cleanup'' of the documents - not of carrying out
negotiations - will present the final Durban conference drafts
Monday to the preparatory committee.
The group, presided by South Africa, is made up of Barbados,
Brazil, Chile and Mexico, representing Latin America and the
Caribbean. The African bloc consists of Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal
and Tunisia, while Canada, France, Sweden and the United States
are the ''Western'' bloc.
Eastern Europe is represented by the Czech Republic, Croatia,
Macedonia and Russia. The nations from Asia participating in the
talks are India, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq
The mission of the document ''cleanup'' team has been bogged
down by the delicate nature of the matters to be debated at the
Robinson commented Tuesday before the UN Economic and Social
Council (ECOSOC) that the World Conference against Racism will
cover ''not just matters of domestic policy and practice but, in
some cases, fundamental issues of national identity.''
''While individual societies have embarked on processes of
reflection and reconciliation, we as a global community have never
attempted it before,'' she pointed out.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued an appeal to ''find ways
to acknowledge the past without getting lost there; and to help
heal old wounds without reopening them.''
In a further attempt to exert pressure on the world's
governments, the High Commissioner is slated to meet in Geneva Aug
3 with a group of ''Eminent Persons'', led by former South African
president, Nelson Mandela.
Among other notables, the group also includes former
presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, of the United States, Mikhail
Gorbachov, of the now-defunct Soviet Union, and Oscar Arias, of
UN officials close to the process are confident that the
arguments of these personalities, to be expressed during a round-
table discussion, will influence the governmental delegates
gathered in a nearby hall to discuss the final documents for
The UN sources also believe that the run-up to the Durban
conference has already proven successful because it has ''engaged
individuals and civil society as much as states.''
''The enormous response from NGOs (non-governmental
organizations) has made it clear that Durban will not be a dry
political gathering dominated by technical negotiations,'' said
In the South African city, there will be an enriching gathering
of peoples and cultures, alongside an inspiring exchange of ideas
and experiences, predicted the High Commissioner.
In addition to the Conference against Racism, an NGO Forum is
slated to meet in Durban Aug 28 to Sep 1, and a Youth Summit on
Aug 26 and 27.
Robinson stressed that during the preparatory phase of the
conference, ''the profile of racism as a global issue has been
raised to an unprecedented level. The regional preparatory
meetings have recognized that racism is a problem in every country
and every region.''
She expressed confidence that the conference will ultimately be
a success, though said she is sure that ''no country or group will
walk away completely satisfied.''
''At a time when the international community is grappling with
so many complex global problems, we simply cannot afford to fail
to find consensus on an issue as clear-cut as racism,'' asserted
the High Commissioner.
The minimum objectives of the UN for the Durban conference
include a declaration that ''solemnly acknowledges the wrongs of
the past, notes the current manifestations of racism, racial
discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.''
The document must also commit governments to ''moving forward
together in the fight against racism.''
A second goal is a program of action that outlines practical
steps for fulfilling these commitments.
Finally, the UN intends to forge an alliance between
governments and civil society ''that will enable the struggle
against racism to be carried beyond Durban.''
Copyright 2001 IPS