Controversy stalks opening day of world racism conference

Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against Israel and other issues Keystone

The World Conference Against Racism has opened in Durban, South Africa, with the Swiss delegation hoping to shake off criticism that Switzerland is not taking the meeting seriously enough.

This content was published on August 31, 2001 - 21:49

Some Swiss non-governmental organisations had hoped that Switzerland, as a neutral country, would play a mediating role between African states and former colonial powers.

Others complained that the delegation, led by Claudia Kaufmann, general secretary of the Interior Ministry, was not high-ranking enough.

One of the issues the Swiss delegation hopes to focus on in Durban is racism on the Internet. Switzerland is currently trying to establish international co-operation at both judicial and political level on this subject.

Switzerland will also be stressing the need for criminal prosecution of racist acts, and the importance of combating discrimination in schools.

Undermined by controversy

Prior to leaving for Durban, ambassador Peter Maurer of the Foreign Ministry expressed fears that the work of the conference would be undermined by the controversy over whether Zionism should be termed a form of racism.

On the opening day his fears were realised as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Durban chanting anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans and denouncing Israel as an "apartheid state".

Both Israel and the United States have sent low-level delegations to the conference, which has been organised by the United Nations, in protest at what they say is an anti-Israel bias in draft texts drawn up for the meeting.

Addressing the controversy, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said Jewish suffering during the Holocaust made Jews sensitive to accusations of racism.

However he added: "We cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a reason why the wrongs done to them - displacement, occupation, blockade, and now extra-judicial killings - should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe them."

swissinfo with agencies

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