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Second Preparatory Committee Meeting for the Durban Review Conference

Human Rights Watch's Position Paper on the Durban Preparatory Committee

Human Rights Watch urges governments involved in the Durban review process to press for progress on key issues highlighted at the Durban Conference of 2001 and to address recent or new manifestations of racism and related intolerance. Where progress has been made since 2001, Human Rights Watch believes that more can be done. Where States have not been successful in adequately addressing certain forms of discrimination, the review conference provides a renewed opportunity.

There are, of course, a host of other important topics relating to racism that could be the focus of the Review Conference; the topics noted in this paper are not meant to be exhaustive of areas in which the conference might make a helpful contribution.

The Review Conference should begin by reaffirming the importance of the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. All states participating should ratify the Convention if they have not already done so, make the declaration under Article 14 of the Convention providing for communications by individuals to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), withdraw any restrictive reservation to the Convention, and cooperate fully with CERD, including submitting any overdue report.

Human Rights Watch also calls on all participants to avoid a repeat of the conduct that so marred the 2001 conference. In particular, the NGO forum at the Durban Conference undermined the wider process when the forum’s concluding statement singled out one country, Israel, as the target of exaggerated and unsupportable allegations and when certain forum participants made anti-Semitic statements and expressed anti-Semitic sentiments that targeted, among others, individuals participating in the conference.

In issuing this caution, Human Rights Watch does not seek to exempt Israel from criticism of its human rights record. Human Rights Watch reports regularly on human rights violations by Israel and has used strong language to condemn those violations and seek their end. But that is very different from making hyperbolic accusations that cannot be factually supported or singling out one government to the exclusion of other comparable offenders.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch also addresses violations of human rights and humanitarian law by Palestinian authorities and armed groups, reflecting our commitment to address serious abuses by all sides to any armed conflict and avoid one-sided or partial accounts. The point is not to equate, excuse or balance abuses but to demonstrate that reporting is based on human rights principles rather than partisan considerations. If the Durban review process is to achieve its aims, it should pursue a similar approach and avoid one-sided or selective accusations that polarize the debate and distract attention from the important work to be done.

In addition, states and NGOs participating in the Review Conference must commit themselves to rejecting racism in all its forms, and to working together in a spirit of mutual respect. Such an approach includes a commitment to avoiding expressions of hatred against any group. The Durban process springs from an awareness of the importance of challenging the discrimination and hatred that drives groups apart. It must live up to those ideals itself.

Our four issues of focus are:

Caste Discrimination

Caste-based discrimination is a historical and ongoing form of discrimination in different regions of the world. An estimated 260 million people continue to suffer from a hidden apartheid of segregation, modern-day slavery and other forms of discrimination as a result of having been born into a marginalized group or caste. Caste discrimination imposes enormous obstacles to the enjoyment of all rights and affects all areas of life. Although many states with a history of such social structures have adopted legislation to prevent discrimination on this basis, implementation is lacking, and prejudices remain socially imbedded.

The Durban Declaration and Plan of Action (DDPA) includes several provisions that recognize the importance of the problem of racism and xenophobia based on descent, and the United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination has repeatedly recognized that caste falls under the aegis of the Race Convention. The Review Conference should build on these normative statements by considering how to tackle the causes and consequences of this kind of discrimination and by addressing the problem of a lack of political will in some of the countries with the most engrained caste systems.

Migrant Domestic Workers

The 2001 Durban conference was a major breakthrough for international attention to the human rights of migrants and was followed in 2003 by the entry into force of the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Human Rights Watch urges all states to ratify the convention, and to comply with its reporting requirements.
The years since Durban have seen increasing global migration and continued hostility towards migrants. In addition to assessing progress in the program outlined by the DDPA, the Review Conference should examine the vulnerability of specific groups of migrants.

Among the nongovernmental organizations invited to the Durban Conference were those that monitor and protect the rights of migrants. Human Rights Watch has been particularly engaged on and concerned about the grave problems of migrant domestic workers around the world. These workers are subject to a particularly acute nexus of discrimination and abuse based on race, gender and migrant status.

Millions of women and girls are systematically denied basic human rights and labor protections that are extended to other workers. They are subject, among other abuses, to physical, psychological and sexual abuse; forced confinement in the workplace; non-payment of wages; and excessively long working hours with no rest days. In some extreme situations, women and girls are trapped in situations of forced labor or have been trafficked into forced domestic work in conditions akin to slavery. The Durban Review Conference offers an opportunity to expose abusive practices that are often socially sanctioned, and for governments to make commitments to work together to guarantee the rights of migrant domestic workers in their countries.

HIV / Aids

In 2007, 2.5 million people became newly infected with HIV. More than 33 million people are currently living with HIV and more than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981. In developing and transitional countries, only 2 out of 7 million people in immediate need of life-saving AIDS drugs have access to them.

HIV-related human rights abuses – which make individuals more vulnerable to infection and prevent them from accessing care and treatment – occur all over the world, but tend to affect disproportionately communities that are already marginalized and discriminated against, including racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. The Review Conference should continue to address HIV-related stigma as an aggravated source of discrimination that intersects both race and sex.

The DDPA called on Governments to adopt and implement HIV/AIDS programs of care and prevention. It also called on governments to ensure non-discrimination in the provision of health care. The review process provides an opportunity to take stock of the progress already made to fight discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS and to take further steps in this direction.

Impact of developments since 11 September 2001 on Racism and Related Intolerance

Any discussion of racism in the contemporary context must take account of developments since 11 September 2001. The Durban Review Conference should address the problem of societal hostility to different racial and religious groups that has been aggravated over the past seven years. It should also examine the human rights implications of counter-terrorism strategies that have disproportionately targeted certain religious, racial, national or ethnic groups. The question of racial-profiling, which was discussed in the DDPA, has proven to be an ongoing concern, but the full ramifications of this question extend much further. Terrorism is a gross affront to some of the most basic rights, but in their responses many governments have themselves adopted policies that violate human rights.

In considering the various ways that terrorism and counter-terrorism yield contemporary forms of racism and related intolerance, the Durban Review Conference must itself avoid the trap of limiting rights in the attempt to uphold others. In particular, fully justified concerns about the complex relationship between racial and religious intolerance and hatred should not be the pretext for undermining key freedoms, including freedom of speech. Attention to this issue should focus on protecting the rights of individuals, including members of religious minorities, rather than on the protection of religions themselves. Along similar lines, the Conference must be careful not to privilege the protection of particular religions and instead maintain a consistent approach to all religions.

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