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Swiss to stress anti-racism efforts at Durban conference

A group of South African children protest against racism ahead of the Durban conference Keystone

Swiss representatives to the United Nations World Conference against racism have outlined the country's goals, amid criticism from some organisations that the official delegation to the conference is not high ranking enough.

“Switzerland gives high priority” to combating racism, according to a government statement on Thursday, which also emphasised the importance of supporting the legitimate claims of victims of discrimination under civil and criminal laws.

A statement of the Swiss position also cites “the many forms of discrimination against women,” and the importance of criminal prosecution of racist acts.

The Swiss delegation in Durban will be led by Claudia Kaufmann, general secretary of the Interior Ministry, who will be promoted to the level of state secretary – a junior minister’s position – for the duration of the conference.

At a press conference introducing the delegation, Kaufmann admitted to journalists that she was aware the decision to put her in charge had caused disappointment.

“I fully understand that feeling,” said Kaufmann, “but you have to understand that Swiss government ministers have very busy agendas, and although the presence of a government minister would make a symbolic difference, it wouldn’t make any difference to the work of our delegation in Durban – and we intend to work very hard.”

Issues overshadowed preparation

Kaufmann will be supported in Durban by ambassador Peter Maurer of the Foreign Ministry. Maurer, who has been appointed deputy head of the delegation, hopes that the controversy over whether Zionism should be termed a form of racism, and the sensitive issue of reparations for countries which were the victims of colonialism and the slave trade, won’t undermine the work of the conference.

“It would be naïve to pretend these issues have not overshadowed the preparation process for the conference,” said Maurer, “and the Swiss position has always been that that should not have been the case, which is why we did not express ourselves too much on these issues. Nevertheless, I am confident that at the end of the day we will have a declaration with some substance to it.”

Although 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, neither Kaufmann nor Maurer thinks this is very likely.

“Switzerland will take part in all discussions in Durban,” said Kaufmann, “but on this particular issue our role will be a very modest one, because we are not really involved in the issue.”

But, Maurer explains, that does not mean Switzerland is not sympathetic to the case for reparations.

“In fact our position is that colonialism, and the slave trade, are among the contributors to economic and social difficulties in African nations, and should be open for discussion as such.”

Racist Internet sites

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 levels on this issue.

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

Doris Angst Yilmaz, general secretary of the Swiss Federal Commission on Racism, is also part of the delegation to Durban. She pointed out that Switzerland too could learn lessons at the conference.

“We have work to do on racism here in Switzerland,” said Yilmaz, “and we can gain experience in Durban. For example, we need arguments to combat the calls here in Switzerland for separating Swiss and foreign schoolchildren. The commission does not agree with this proposal, and we hope to hear of new ways of promoting a tolerant and inclusive society.”

No binding conventions

Nevertheless the Swiss delegation was eager to stress that the Durban conference should not be seen as some sort of global solution to racism.

“Durban is simply one more step towards a non-racist world,” said Kaufmann. “There will be no legally binding conventions coming out of this conference, but there will be a political statement and an action plan.”

“The importance of Durban will be the way in which countries can exchange experiences and learn from one another.”

“And” added Kaufmann, “what I am hoping for is a really concrete action plan that we can take back to Switzerland and get started on. The action plan should be our guide for the next 10 years in our work here at home against racism.”

by Imogen Foulkes

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