- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

NEW YORK —The tough-talking U.N. human rights chief yesterday chastised governments for doing too little to combat racism and discrimination in the past six years and urged them not to allow a planned racism conference next year to degrade into a duplicate of the 2001 hate-fest that drove away the United States and Israel.

At the 2001 gathering in Durban, South Africa, many advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations used sideshow theatrics to draw attention to wrongs claimed against Palestinians, Africans drawn into the North American slave trade, immigrants, aborigines, homosexuals, and ethnic, racial or cultural minorities.

Diplomats from two dozen countries are meeting in Geneva this week to hammer out the agenda for the 2009 racism review conference. The intent is to evaluate areas where nations have made progress and where they have not.

“The Durban review conference is not and should not be seen as a repetition of the 2001 World Conference,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told delegates yesterday. “Allow me to reiterate that it is rather a platform to evaluate progress, an opportunity to reinvigorate commitments, and a vehicle to fine-tune responses in a purposeful and contextual manner.”

Although the mandate appears mundane, the Bush administration has refused to participate in the planning stages and is yielding to the next president to decide whether to attend or boycott the meeting.

The Israeli and French governments are reluctant to attend, and the conservative Canadian government has announced it will not participate.

Observers said that the most important decision to be made in meetings this week will be the venue.

“The venue establishes the nature of the conference,” said Tad Stahnke, director of the anti-discrimination program at Human Rights First, a nongovernmental organization.

He and other human rights advocates suggested that the meeting be held at U.N. headquarters in New York or Geneva, to provide a more businesslike atmosphere.

“Our view is that the first conference was really marred by hateful anti-Semitic atmosphere, especially at the NGO forum,” Mr. Stahnke said.

“This is supposed to be a review of states’ actions, and the appropriate forum for that is where U.N. delegations are. You’re likely to see less of an out-of-control situation, and the U.N. will keep the agenda on the straight and narrow,” he said.

Libya and South Africa offered to host the follow-up conference. Najat Al-Hajjaji, Libya’s ambassador to U.N. organizations based in Geneva, is chairing the preparatory meetings.

About 18,000 people from 170 countries attended the Durban conference, which concluded days before the Sept. 11 attacks. Of these, 7,000 attended the parallel NGO forum, which generated much of the theatrics, rhetoric and friction that have come to define the conference.

Ms. Arbour said yesterday that global progress to curtail racism, discrimination and xenophobia were unimpressive.

Governments have made little effort to subscribe to key treaties and conventions to combat hatred, she said, and many countries do not have or do not enforce laws to protect minority and worker rights.

“An overview of the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination during the last four years reveals that across regions, member states still fail to recognize the existence of the phenomenon of racism,” Ms. Arbour said. “National laws and measures to ensure its elimination in most countries are either inadequate or ineffective. As a result, vulnerable groups continue to suffer aggression while abusers enjoy impunity.”

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