Unity is essential to moving past intolerance, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon underscored today, lamenting the decision by several nations not to attend the United Nations anti-racism conference which kicked off today and deploring remarks made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Some nations, who by rights should be helping to forge a path to a better future, are not here,” Mr. Ban said at the start of the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, referring to countries such as the United States and Israel which have refused to attend the five-day gathering.
He also spoke out against the comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad at today’s session which he said were intended to “accuse, divide and even incite,” calling them a roadblock to tackling the scourge of racism.
“This is the opposite of what this Conference seeks to achieve,” noted the Secretary-General in a statement, who, at an earlier meeting with the Iranian official, emphasized the importance of the gathering to galvanize global will to fight intolerance.
During their talks, Mr. Ban said that he also underlined the need to look ahead to the future, not to the past of divisiveness, reminding Mr. Ahmadinejad that the UN General Assembly has adopted resolutions rejecting the equation of Zionism with racism and reaffirming the Holocaust’s historical facts.
In a statement directed at the Iranian President’s remarks today, however, he said “we must all turn away from such a message in both form and substance.”
Also speaking out against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s address was High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who deplored his use of the Conference for political grandstanding.
“Much of his speech was clearly beyond the scope of the Conference,” which is racism and the implementation of actions plans to eliminate the scourge, she told reporters in Geneva, stressing that “this one intervention” should not be allowed to mar the event.
Both Mr. Ban and Ms. Pillay said they regretted that many nations left the conference room during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s address.
The gathering is “too important for anyone to remain outside this conference hall,” the Secretary-General said, while the High Commissioner said that although she was “shocked and deeply saddened” by the Iranian leader’s speech, “his behaviour does not provide any justification for any other Member States to walk out.”
In his address to the Geneva gathering today, Mr. Ban called for nations to move beyond old divisions and form a united front against racism.
“Let us recognize the difference between honest disagreement and mere divisiveness – or worse, sheer obstructionism,” the Secretary-General said.
If left unchecked, he warned that racism could spiral into social unrest and violence, especially during the current economic crisis.
“If ever there were a cause in which we can all believe, this is it – a truly great and noble cause that binds [us] as human beings,” Mr. Ban maintained, calling on nations to seize the moment to work together to combat racism in all its manifestations.
Nearly 4,000 people have registered to take part in the Conference, including more than 100 heads of delegation from Member States and over 2,500 representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The event seeks to assess progress and implementation thus far of the landmark Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) agreed on by States eight years ago.
“The hopes of millions of victims are pinned on the implementation of this document, but the noblest charter is reduced to empty rhetoric if the commitments it enshrines are given no practical effect,” the High Commissioner said in remarks to the Conference today.
She pointed out that “a failure to agree on the way forward would negatively reverberate on the human rights agenda for years to come,” stressing that “each and every one of us has a stake in the fight against racism.”
Participants at the Conference are expected to consider and adopt a 16-page draft outcome, agreed on by consensus last Friday by States attending the Preparatory Committee.
Drafting the text was not an “easy process, but it is excellent that delegates have agreed on the key issues,” the High Commissioner said in welcoming agreement on the outcome document, voicing hope that this week’s Conference will send an unequivocal message that “we are, indeed, united against racism.”