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Progress against racism truest measure of world conference, UN rights official says

Progress against racism truest measure of world conference, UN rights official says

The true test of the value of the upcoming United Nations conference on racism is whether the results ensure progress in the fight against racial discrimination, the world body's top human rights official said today.

The victims of prejudice have "the most urgent of reasons to look to us to secure a successful outcome which will improve their lives," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson in her opening address to the two-week session of the preparatory committee of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance Conference. The conference is scheduled for 31 August to 7 September in Durban, South Africa.

"I need hardly say that it would send an extremely negative signal if agreement could not be reached on a worthwhile Declaration and Programme of Action," Ms. Robinson said to the committee, which is meeting to finalize its work on the draft Declaration and Programme of Action. "I prefer to look at the positive side: for the international community to mobilize behind a serious document that explains the nature of racism in the modern world, and that sets out the strategies to combat it, would be a major step forward."

Ms. Robinson said that in her meetings with political leaders she found a growing recognition of the urgency and importance of the issues on the agenda and the need to have a successful outcome. "The conference has the potential to shape attitudes, not only towards racism, but towards the basic question of how we relate to each other, in a positive and innovative way, at the start of this century," she said.

In her remarks, Ms. Robinson urged countries not to dwell on past wrongs such as the effects of mass slavery and the negative impact they have had, or the conference might lapse into recriminations. However, the world must come to terms with the past in order to move forward, she said. "Finding ways of addressing the past will allow us to focus on the daunting challenge of addressing racism in all its contemporary forms and spelling out a blueprint for the future."

The High Commissioner also noted language in the draft document that equated Zionism with racism and warned that reopening the issue would put the success of the conference at risk. "The United Nations has already dealt with this issue at great length," she said. "The resolution was repealed a decade ago."