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Governments use the small print to evade commitments on racism

5 September 2001

Durban, South Africa

Governments are using disclaimers and legalese to weaken or even negate the commitments made in the Declaration and Programme of Action of the UN World Conference Against Racism, said Minority Rights Group International as the conference started its penultimate day. The use of legal qualifiers threatens to weaken much of the action against racism to be agreed by governments, and in some instances may even undermine existing legal standards on human rights.

Individuals and peoples targeted by some of the most extreme forms of racial discrimination and racist violence spoke today at a press conference organized by Minority Rights Group International. Representatives from Macedonia, Mauritania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Britain explained how the Programme of Action fell short of the concrete measures needed to combat racism in their countries. Saikou Diallo from the USA spoke of his disappointment at the US pull-out and how his efforts at gaining justice for the killing of his son Amadou have been repeatedly frustrated.

Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence killed in a racist murder in London, said: ‘Countries like the United Kingdom are in denial of what is happening. They are quick to look outside and criticize the racism and crimes in other countries, but not at home. I am here in Durban to prevent people hiding behind the language.’

The force of the programme of action has been deliberately weakened by states by including a plethora of ‘where possible’ and ‘if applicable’ phrases in the text, giving individual states an opt-out to taking effective action. Governments are using disclaimers specifically to limit the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples, despite the fact that they suffer some of the most egregious manifestations of racism worldwide.

Paragraph 27 of the Declaration states that ‘the use of the term ‘indigenous peoples’ … cannot be construed as having any implications to rights under international law’, in one stroke removing the legal force of all action in the document with regard to indigenous peoples. Paragraph 51 of the Declaration only requires states to respect their existing domestic law on land rights ‘wherever possible’ when it comes to indigenous peoples. Paragraph 51 of the Programme of Action provides that, in respect of minorities, states only need prevent racial discrimination ‘where applicable’.

‘Some governments are actively lobbying for legal disclaimers to limit or even negate the important commitments on racism made in the Programme of Action’, said Mark Lattimer, Director of Minority Rights Group International. ‘They want to be seen to be doing something, but in reality they are working behind the scenes to undermine the commitments for minorities and indigenous peoples.’

‘As the World Conference nears its end, we need to move beyond slogans to real action. That means that governments should put their money where their mouths are and commit more resources for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.’

For additional information or for interviews with Krishna Maharaj, Advocacy Manager at Minority Rights Group International or with Mark Lattimer, Director, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].