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Durban Review Conference – Geneva

2 June 2009

Paul Mulindwa, MRG’s Africa Project Officer based in Kampala, Uganda, reports back from the Durban Review Conference in Geneva

Having come from Uganda representing Minority Rights Group and the work they do in Africa, I was especially excited to attend this conference because it was obvious how significant it could be. Many other NGOs clearly felt the same – the amount attending the event in total reached 417. Accreditation was made much simpler than usual for the UN, the loose vetting procedure being testimony to the non-discriminatory ethos of the conference. There were also over 80 national human rights institutions and the attendance of most respective member states, apart from a select few (Italy, Netherlands, Poland, German, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, USA, and Israel) who snubbed the event from the outset.

There was a general feeling of optimism during the opening ceremonies and speeches, the Secretary General’s words particularly resonating: after decades of advocacy across the world, racism still persists. Less welcome was the subsequent speech of President Ahmedinejad in what seemed an attempt to hijack the universal nature of the Durban Review and turn it into a dispute about relations between Israel and the Middle East, a trend highlighted by Minority Rights Group identified in 2001. This controversy meant that the following two days were somewhat dominated by issues to do with Israel and the Middle East, this in turn having an effect on the Western press coverage of the event. While after time the conference gained perspective and focus, it wasn’t until much later that I heard any substantial discussion on the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA) – the conference’s most action-orientated document that proposes concrete measures to combat racism, discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The DDPA addresses a wide range of issues and is especially important because it embodies the firm commitment of the international community to tackle racism. It also recognizes, like the Secretary General, that no country can claim to be free of racism, that racism is a global concern and that tackling it should be a universal effort.

The conference was organized in such a way that there were many side events, performances and plenary taking place at the same time. MRG’s Mark Lattimer introduced an event 9 addressing discrimination against Muslims in counter-terror measures, alongside various other cultural events, shows and displays. The most significant of these for me was a forum called Voices 9 that provided a platform for individuals from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences and give a human face to issues addressed by the conference. Listening to the testimonies of these people the magnitude of the discrimination across the world became tangible, as I listened to the individual stories of Albinos, women in Nigeria, Aborigines in Australia…

The general outlay of the conference and the presentations and documents available showed that the conference was indeed overdue and necessary. It was clear that the Human Rights Council – its special procedures, mechanisms and relevant treaty bodies –thoroughly incorporated the 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action into its work. Although the DDPA is not legally binding, it has a strong moral value and serves as a basis for advocacy efforts worldwide. So probably the most important dilemma now will be making the three follow-up mechanisms it created more effective.

The conference was encouraging and I am optimistic that if similar conferences could take place more often, with member governments respecting and fulfilling the obligations stated in the outcome document, in particular adopting the legislation ensuring the right to equality and non-discrimination, and providing adequate remedies and reparations for the victims of racial discrimination, a real difference could be made.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.