United Nations

UN conference on racism overcomes controversy with concrete suggestions for change

GENEVA - A United Nations conference held here in April strongly reaffirmed the world's commitment to "prevent, combat and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance."

Held 20-24 April 2009, the Durban Review Conference sought to review and accelerate the progress made since the 2001 World Conference against Racism, which was held in Durban, South Africa.

In its final document, delegates representing 182 nations declared "that all peoples and individuals constitute one human family, rich in diversity, and that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." They "strongly" rejected "any doctrine of racial superiority along with theories which attempt to determine the existence of so-called distinct human races."

In advance, many aspects of the conference were surrounded by controversy. Among the concerns was a feeling that countries with poor human rights records might use the Conference as a public relations event to divert attention from rights violations. The Bahá'í International Community, for example, joined others in expressing concern over Iran's record. [See page 10.]

Finally, the outcome document successfully avoided becoming mired in such controversies and kept to the goal of mobilizing the international community against racism, xenophobia, and intolerance.

"Despite the misgivings of some critics, the conference has proved to be what it was intended to be all along:  a celebration of tolerance and dignity for all," said Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The outcome document combined elements of high principle with concrete suggestions for change. For example, it expressed concern over delays in the submission of reports by the States parties to the international Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

"In many respects, the outcome document removed some of those issues that caused many to say the 2001 Durban conference was flawed," said Sarah Vader, a Bahá'í International Community representative to the United Nations.

"There is no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor is there mention of the defamation of religion. It focused on racism and intolerance. And so the outcome document can be used as a further instrument by the international community in the fight against racism and intolerance," said Ms. Vader.

For its part, the Bahá'í International Community presented a statement stressing the importance of the recognition of the oneness of humanity as the key to achieving the Conference's goals.

"The reality is that there is only one human race," said the Bahá'í statement. "We are a single people, inhabiting one planet: one human family bound together in a common destiny and obligated to 'be even as one soul.' Recognition of this truth is the antidote to racism, xenophobia and related intolerance."