Geneva searches for the right words

UN seeks to make anti-racism conference succeed despite absence of US and others.

Last updated: 19 Apr 2009 09:26
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The conference is meant to assess progress made against racism in recent years [REUTERS]

Over the next few days, in Geneva's expensively furnished hotel rooms, United Nations officials will work frantically with words.

They will be balancing them for meaning, intention and implication as they search for a means to label their anti-racism conference, which convenes in the Swiss city on Monday, as a huge success.

As always with events of this kind, officials work for months behind the scenes, preparing the wording for the final document - the communique which will be issued at the end of the meeting, agreed by all participants. 

However, the words have already caused problems for a number of countries. The US does not like the way things are shaping up, and has decided it will not be sending a delegation to Geneva.

It is not the first country to withdraw from the conference, but it is the biggest and most diplomatically significant.

Australia, Sweden, Italy, Israel and Canada are also boycotting the meetings and other countries may join this list before the first session is brought to order on Monday morning. 

Durban dispute

"[The conference]singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians"

US state department spokesman

The five-day Geneva conference has been called to assess international progress in fighting racism and xenophobia since the UN's first conference against "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance," which was held in Durban, South Africa in September 2001.

It is in Durban where the roots of the contention began.

There, discussions became heated and angry over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the legacy of slavery.

As events came to a climax, Israeli and US delegations walked out.  They said they found the draft document, which equated Zionism with racism, unacceptable.

Many Muslim nations see the Geneva conference as an opportunity to highlight what they see as Islamophobic tendencies in the west.

They point to the row over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, first published in 2006, and a number of controversial films produced in Europe since as clear examples of growing Islamophobia.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which represents 56 countries, would like to see "defamation of religion" defined as racist behaviour.
There had been high hopes that the US would have a delegation sitting at the table on Monday morning, given  a change in administration in Washington and the new world view of Barack Obama, the US president.

But over the weekend, the US delegation pulled out saying that despite significant changes in the draft document - many of which they specifically requested - there remained many things they deem unacceptable.

For example, they believe defining defamation of religion as racism impacts significantly on the freedom of speech.

A spokesman for the US State Department said the proposed final document "singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians".

"The United States also has serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding 'incitement', that run counter to the US commitment to unfettered free speech," he said.

The US decision has been welcomed by pro-Israel groups who thought the conference was simply an excuse for "Jew-bashing" but some senior politicians, including Obama's leading allies, say the decision goes against the new administration's policy of engaging with those they agree and disagree with.

Words are important, but it is the actions of the US and others which are proving significant at the moment.

Al Jazeera
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