The UN Racism Conference: Halls of Shame and Fame

Now that the recent UN conference on racism is over, it’s time to look at what really happened behind the bluster. Some countries that engaged in serious and constructive negotiation came out with their reputations enhanced. Those that postured at the expense of racism’s victims, however, emerged looking foolish or worse.

We didn’t end world racism in Geneva. But it’s important to understand the significance of the meeting. It was the first global meeting on racism since 2001, with the bitter divisions that had emerged both then and since. It took place during a determined push by some states to turn human rights on its head and prohibit the “defamation of religions,” thus giving religions certain “rights” against individuals.

There was a concerted, global campaign to make this conference fail. This campaign had mixed motives, but some opponents simply decided years ago that the conference would be a “hatefest.” A few months ago, senior UN officials were telling me they had never seen anything like the sustained attack on the conference. The campaign particularly targeted Western countries with the aim of making them stay away. The officials said a failure and boycott would set back the UN’s work against racism by decades and do great damage to its broader human rights work.

Two states that should be particularly condemned are Canada and the Netherlands. Canada started a boycott long before anyone knew what the conference would actually be about. The Netherlands adopted a particularly destructive approach, creating new problems every time an agreement was near.

The Conference Itself

By highlighting the speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the first day, the campaigners against the conference portrayed it as the predicted “hatefest.” In fact, those of us who sat through the whole conference found it far from being so. The Iranian president’s speech was an isolated incident. The many speeches that followed were far more typical — worthy, perhaps even dull, but not hateful. That in itself may be a success.

In fact, though, the conference achieved much more.

A few months ago, agreement on a conference document looked impossible. The division between north and south that can so often bedevil the UN was wrecking the drafting. By December, finger-pointing over the expected failure of the conference had begun.

But then a minor miracle happened. Led by a Russian facilitator, states from across the world sat down and talked, and eventually agreed to a document that makes clear commitments to address racism. They replaced language about defamation of religion with a strong call for freedom of expression. No one state is singled out for criticism. States have agreed to do much more to protect migrants, so often the victims of racism. After months of discussion, and one week before the conference began, 140 states essentially agreed to the conference document.

The text isn’t perfect. Caste discrimination, which affects at least 270 million people around the world, isn’t mentioned. But the fact that there was agreement on a relatively good document is much better than had seemed possible in January. Credit is due first to Yuri Boichenko, the Russian facilitator, who took over the drafting and negotiating of the text when all seemed lost, and managed to bring nearly everyone together. Second, the UN High Commission on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and her staff, played a key role in making the conference a success, despite having been advised to stay well clear of a potential disaster.

Norway also deserves much credit, not only for playing a key role in ensuring agreement on a good document but also for sending to the conference its foreign minister, who was able to respond immediately to Ahmadinejad’s speech and keep the conference on course. Other states that emerged with their reputations enhanced include Britain and France, which remained engaged despite much pressure at home to withdraw, and those Islamic, Latin American, and African countries, particularly Egypt and Pakistan, whose work was critical in ensuring a compromise.

The Hall of Shame

But there should also be a hall of shame. Apart from Canada and the Netherlands, high on the list would be Ahmadinejad, though his speech did nothing to change Iran’s defeat the following day on the declaration itself.

The 10 boycotting states all had a negative impact. The Obama administration looked like its predecessor by shouting its demands from Washington. Although it acknowledged major progress on the text, it still said it wouldn’t even participate in negotiations until all of its demands were met — an approach to diplomacy that everyone had hoped not to see from Obama. The European mini-boycott started by the Dutch looked especially foolish, considering the Europeans got everything they wanted. Germany found itself boycotting a UN conference for the first time, apparently due only to its forthcoming election. It tried to explain that it wasn’t boycotting but “observing” and supported the declaration by “staying silent.”

Europe’s hall of shame was completed by the Czech Republic, which holds the EU presidency and is supposed to provide leadership, and Poland and Italy. The other boycotters were Israel, Australia, and New Zealand.

The main result of the boycotters’ grandstanding was to ensure that much time was wasted on damage control rather than addressing the needs of victims of racism. The 10, each with a domestic racism problem, should take a good look at how they ended up abandoning victims of racism around the world for what, in many cases, seems to be domestic political reasons. They should at least publicly support the declaration that most of them say privately they agree with.

As the sound and fury fades away, it’s important to move forward and to listen to the victims of racism, not those who were determined the conference should fail. The declaration will remain simply a piece of paper unless put into action. The states need to be held to what they have agreed, and to address what was left out.

We need to make sure that the ringing endorsement of freedom of expression ends the futile discussions about defamation of religion and allows us to focus on how to protect people from harm. States need to be held to the commitments they have made to protect the rights of migrants, including children and domestic workers. And it’s high time to start taking action about caste discrimination. Finally, the Obama administration should take a long and calm look at the declaration, and, if it wants to be taken seriously in the fight against racism, express its support.

Clive Baldwin is senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He attended the recent Durban Review Conference in Geneva.