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Swiss say much to be done before racism conference

The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, hopes the United States will not boycott Durban Keystone Archive

Efforts in Geneva to salvage the United Nations Conference on Racism, which is due to get under way later this month, have only been partially successful. A "concerned" Swiss delegation said half the texts to be submitted to ministers in Durban had yet to be agreed.

The Swiss Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, François Nordmann, told swissinfo that “significant progress” had been made, but that “more still needs to be done”.

“Fifty per cent of the texts are still in brackets, and time is running out. It is a concern,” he said, as the deadline for the end of the third preparatory committee meeting approached.

The process of drafting documents to be signed at the conference in Durban was due to end on Friday, but it was clear that contentious issues remained unresolved, not least the question of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

Jean-Daniel Vigny, who headed the Swiss delegation to the preparatory meetings, said that negotiations on the question of Israel remain “difficult”. He added that it was unlikely that enough time remained to hold a last-ditch fourth meeting before Durban.

“Consultations will have to take place between now and Durban to resolve these outstanding issues,” Nordmann said. “These problems are of a political nature, and it will take politicians to resolve them”.

Arab states are insisting that Israeli policies, such as the colonising of Palestinian areas, should be debated in Durban. The United States has threatened to boycott the conference if it used as a platform to denounce Israel.

The United States’ threat to boycott Durban

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who is chairing the talks, said on Friday she hoped enough progress had been made in the past two weeks of negotiation to persuade the Americans to drop their threat to boycott Durban. On Thursday she had urged all parties to continue looking for a compromise beyond Friday’s deadline.

Robinson has warned that if the question of Zionism is included in the agenda, the conference will fail.

Vigny was pleased to report that two proposals Switzerland had put forward had been provisionally adopted: on the development of independent institutions to tackle racism; and on non-discrimination during armed conflicts.

However, other key Swiss-backed texts – on racism and the internet, and mechanisms to continuously monitor racism – were not even discussed, as so much time had been taken up dealing with the more contentious issues. These questions will now have until Durban.

“We regret that it took so long to get down to real negotiations,” Vigny said.

Nordmann agreed: “Progress has been made too late. The timetable was very clear. We should have been at this stage by the end of the second preparatory committee meeting”.

Africa’s demand for compensation

One sticking point that seems to have been overcome is the demand by African countries for compensation for slavery and colonialism. This prompted another boycott threat by Washington, but diplomats suggest a deal on that issue is within reach.

Nevertheless, a boycott over the issue of Zionism remains a possibility, not least in the light of the comments of one US negotiator, who said “the Durban conference needs the United States more than the United States needs the Durban conference”.

The American stance is considered worrisome by the Swiss. “An American boycott would give the Durban conference less importance, and it would be regrettable,” Nordmann says.

The composition of the Swiss delegation has yet to be finalised, and it will depend on the report submitted by the Swiss delegation to these preparatory talks. The decision will be taken in about 10 days.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR