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Common ground elusive ahead of racism summit

Israel's seat at the World Conference against Racism has been empty since 2001

(Keystone)

Defining racism is proving a divisive task ahead of April's United Nations racism summit in Geneva, with numerous countries threatening to boycott the meeting.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Monday rejected fears that the summit would be hijacked by critics of Israel and urged countries to make the meeting a success by focusing on global issues.

Planning sessions for the Durban Review Conference, or Durban II, will take place in Geneva from April 20 to 24.

They are a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 that was marked by attempts by Islamic countries to brand Israel a racist state.

Israel and the US walked out in protest at draft conference texts and the language was later changed.

Pillay said the April conference had been disparaged in the media and attacked by a lobbying campaign of those who fear a repeat of 2001. She urged all countries to put aside "narrow, parochial interests and reflexive partisanship" and work for an agreement that would help eradicate discrimination.

"Failure to do so may reverberate negatively on the full spectrum of human rights work and mechanisms for years to come," she said.

It follows Friday's announcement by the Obama administration that the US would boycott the April conference unless all references to Israel and the defamation of religion were dropped from its final document.

US officials are also pressing European nations to boycott the conference unless there are revisions.

In a break from Bush administration policy, the US last month sent two envoys to Geneva to make the US case in discussions on the draft declaration.

So far the unwieldy global blueprint for addressing racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance has been cut down from 130 to 38 pages, but many stumbling blocks remain.

Growing Islamophobia

The current draft incorporates language presented by Islamic countries accusing Israel of violations against Palestinians, and also their stand against religious defamation, which Western countries say would be a pretext to curb freedom of speech.

Canada and Israel have already announced they will boycott the Geneva conference. Around half of European countries also threaten to stay away if Islamic countries continue to insist on imposing their concept of religious defamation or on over-focusing on the Middle East.

For many Muslim countries, Islamophobia is a growing concern overtaking anti-Semitism.

"Religious defamation should be erased from the document; it's the red line that shouldn't be crossed, as this notion is not compatible with discussions on human rights," one European diplomat told swissinfo confidentially.

For the EU, the Geneva meeting should strengthen freedom of expression, as "it's an instrument for combating racism".

Last September during a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, Western states managed to prevent the creation of a new ruling on religious defamation in favour of one on freedom of expression. But the battle is not over.

Doudou Diène, the former UN special rapporteur on racism, last year told a Durban review meeting that "new forms of discrimination should also be attacked, such as Islamophobia, which is a very serious kind of discrimination, like anti-Semitism or anti-Christian acts".

Wider concerns

With respect to the Middle East, the EU has many reservations about "focusing on one particular region of the world", where the conflict is more political than racial.

For Swiss human rights diplomat Muriel Berset, the Durban Declaration should not mention one particular region.

"The debate shouldn't be reduced to these two points alone [religious defamation and the Middle East]. There are other essential problems like slavery, the question of reparations, and multiple discriminations – against sick people, those with Aids, women, the handicapped, etc," she told swissinfo.

The aim of the Geneva conference is to examine the implementation of the final declaration and action plan adopted on September 9, 2001, not to change its parameters, she added.

Another contentious issue is sexual freedom.

Western and Latin American countries would like it to feature in the final declaration, but Muslim states are against the idea.

"For you being homosexual is a right, but for us it's a crime," one Muslim diplomat told a Western colleague during preparatory talks in January.

Security deployment

Another touchy issue is the question of migrants, who are often victims of racial discrimination. The EU is very reluctant to condemn the "criminalisation" of illegal immigration, while the issue is crucial for Latin American and Caribbean states.

The EU also refuses to discuss financial reparations for its colonial or slavery past, or for actions deemed racist in the fight against terrorism. For the EU, all victims of racism should be treated equally.

"A hierarchy for victims is not acceptable to us," said a European diplomat.

For Berset, one of the main differences between the 2001 Durban and 2009 Geneva meetings will be the inclusion of civil society.

"In Geneva, NGOs are associated with the process, unlike Durban where they held their own conference away from the official summit," she explained.

"Switzerland is working with Geneva to welcome NGOs and to help them get visas, accommodation and food at accessible prices. There will also be a big security deployment as we don't want any of the racist or anti-Semitic outbursts we witnessed in Durban," Berset said.

swissinfo, based on an article by Juan Gasparini and Carole Vann/InfoSud

The Durban Review Conference

The Durban Review Conference will take place in Geneva from April 20-24 and will evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

The Review Conference is intended to serve as a catalyst to fulfil the promises of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action agreed at the 2001 World Conference.

The declaration and plan of action proposes concrete measures to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

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