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Despite Western Boycott, Racism Meet Gets Overwhelming Support

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 22 2011 (IPS) - A “boycott” by more than a dozen Western nations, including the United States, Germany, Canada and Israel, failed to derail a high-level meeting on racism and xenophobia hosted by the 193-member General Assembly.

An overwhelming majority of member states, virtually all of them from the developing world, participated in Thursday’s meeting aimed at commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) adopted at the 2001 world conference on racism in the South African port city of Durban.

The landmark declaration, which identified discrimination of all political stripes, including against ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, women, refugees, migrants, Africans and Afro-Americans, has been described as the most comprehensive framework for fighting racism and racial discrimination worldwide.

In her opening address, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay “saluted” the vast majority of member states who are showing their support for this important achievement intended to combat racism and make a difference in the lives of so many victims worldwide.

“The lead-up to this commemoration has been undoubtedly challenging, in no small part because the issues are complex and sensitive,” she said.

Statement by Sarah White of the Mississippi Workers' Center

On behalf of the countless victims of racial discrimination all over the world it is an honour to carry these voices here today. I bring you greetings from the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights, where I serve as President of the Board of Directors.

The Center was founded by long time human rights activist, Jaribu Hill in 1996. Located in the Mississippi Delta, the Center fights for the dignity and human rights of low-wage African American workers and all those who languish in extreme poverty.

But I'm here today as the voice for those who have been excluded, marginalized, violated and denied their basic human rights.

When I sat on the "Voices of Victims" panel at the World Conference in Durban in 2001 and then again at the Durban Review Conference in 2009, I spoke about the history of the struggles of Mississippi catfish workers and the battles we faced everyday for human rights and justice.

I described how we as Black women had to stand on our feet for 12 hours a day in ankle-deep water that contained chlorine and other harmful chemicals. This contaminated water caused severe skin rashes and other serious physical ailments.

White male supervisors would force us to speed up our work on the assembly line so the company could make maximum profit. The bosses did not care about the health and well-being of the workers. Supervisors would terrorize us, making threats: "speed it up or lose your job."

We were sexually and racially harassed on a daily basis. We were denied bathroom privileges. These are some of the conditions that workers encounter everyday - today - in catfish and poultry plants. These indignities were suffered by us as workers because of our skin color and economic class.

I am here today to let you know we rose up and fought to get justice and human rights. We held labour strikes and won battles and began a worker’s rights movement all over the state. Plants began to organize.

Although we won many battles, we still must continue the struggle. There is racial profanity, intimidation and harassment on a daily basis. Even today, extra- judicial killings still take place. Workplaces are still racially segregated.

Black workers are still assigned to the most dirtiest and most dangerous jobs and forced to work under conditions that look a lot like slavery. People are still dying to make a living.

No country, she declared, can claim to be free of racism “but we must be resolute in finding the courage to unite and move ahead together”.

But that unity was absent at the meeting as some of the Western nations, including Italy, France, Australia, and the Netherlands, were either absent or refused to actively participate primarily because they remained critical of the DDPA.

Despite a mostly Western boycott, however, there were several European countries, including Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, which took part in roundtable discussions on the sidelines of the high-level meeting.

The longstanding criticism of the DDPA is based primarily on its recognition of the “plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” and their legitimate right to “an independent state”.

As a result, the DDPA has been dubbed as being “anti-Israel” despite the fact the declaration also explicitly recognised “the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel”.

In a statement released Thursday, the U.S. State Department said it refused to participate in the high-level meeting because the Durban process, since its inception, has included “ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism”.

In 2009, after working “to try to achieve a positive, constructive outcome” in the Durban Review Conference (in Geneva), the United States withdrew from participating.

And the outcome document of the review conference “reaffirmed”, in its entirety, the 2001 DDPA, “which unfairly and unacceptably singled out Israel”, the statement said.

Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s representative at the United Nations, told IPS: “I think it’s regrettable that countries are boycotting a process that, although far from perfect, has garnered such support and buy-in from states but also, just as importantly, from the people suffering from racism.”

If they feel the process is flawed, he argued, the best way to fix it is to participate.

“And not participating does not absolve them from the commitments they undertook when most of them accepted the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (only the U.S. and Israel failed to endorse it at Durban),” he said.

Thursday’s meeting also adopted, by consensus, a political declaration “reaffirming” once again the DDPA and the outcome document of the review conference in Geneva as “a solid foundation for combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Asked whether the boycott affected Thursday’s political declaration, Diaz said that some of the countries boycotting participated in the negotiations on the document, but if they had all been fully engaged, “We might have seen a stronger statement on behalf of victims and in favour of concrete action.”

Jan Lonn, secretary of the World Against Racism Network, told IPS the meeting was “a great success with the adoption of the outcome document which shows how isolated in reality the anti-Durban campaign is among U.N. member states.”

“This also clearly came out of the roundtable discussions with countries from all regions contributing constructively to the discussion,” he added.

Chandra Bhatnagar, senior staff attorney with the Human Rights Programme at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said “the absence of the United States in today’s proceedings is disappointing.”

“It contradicts the administration’s stated position to push for positive models to advance human rights, and sends the wrong message to the global community regarding the U.S. commitment to fight racial injustice everywhere,” he said.

As a founding member of the United Nations and a state party to the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legal instrument in the world – the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) – the United States is legally bound to fight racism and take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists, Bhatnagar declared.

Pillay said although there has been limited progress in implementing the Durban declaration on eliminating racism over the last 10 years, “so far we have done too little, too slowly”.

“We have allowed the global response to racism to be clouded by politics. We must do better. The victims of racism demand and expect this of us,” she declared.

Diaz of Amnesty International told IPS there has been progress since the Durban conference, even if it is difficult in many instances to pin it specifically to that meeting.

“One of the greatest legacies of the conference is how it not only provided an unprecedented forum for people suffering different kinds of discrimination and intolerance around the world to claim their rights, but how it also re-invigorated or even sparked whole movements,” he said.

“For us, it is obvious that there hasn’t been sufficient political will to implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Countries seem more ready to use the Durban process as a way of scoring political points against adversaries,” he noted.

The controversy around participation by some countries in discussions of Durban, a process overwhelmingly endorsed by the international community, has only made it more difficult to make the commitments to respond to racism and racial discrimination real, he added.

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