(Geneva) - The likely presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN's upcoming conference on racism should strengthen the resolve of governments to attend the talks and ensure the adoption of a strong declaration against racism, Human Rights Watch said today. Ahmadinejad has announced he will attend the Durban Review Conference to be held on April 21-24, 2009 in Geneva, while the United States has said it will not participate because of continuing concerns about the proposed text.
"We've made enormous progress to overcome the problems surrounding the preparatory process of this conference and produce a declaration to unite the world against the scourge of racism," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments should stand firm in Geneva to ensure that Ahmadinejad's presence isn't used to undermine a process that's now backed by so many nations, or to undercut the constructive spirit of the negotiations."
There was a significant turning point in the negotiations leading up to the review conference a few weeks ago when participating nations agreed to remove any reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or any other specific situation) and to "defamation of religion." These two issues had polarized delegations and damaged prospects of a successful outcome to the conference.
On April 15, the Russian chair of the preparatory negotiations produced a new, revised version of the draft declaration for the conference which provides a basis for a broad global agreement. The document takes stock of efforts to end racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance and paves the way for future UN action. On April 21, the representatives of nearly every member state of the UN will meet to finalize this text and pledge themselves to a renewed commitment to defeat racism.
Ahmadinejad's past statements on Israel and the Holocaust have made him a divisive figure. Some fear that during his appearance at the conference he could make controversial comments on the two issues that the other countries agreed to keep out.
"It's clear Iran stood isolated when it tried to reintroduce the concept of defamation of religion in negotiations last week," de Rivero said. "If Ahmadinejad tries to reopen issues that states have taken off the table, delegations should react firmly to uphold the current consensus."
Human Rights Watch said that governments should deepen their engagement with the conference to ensure that it stays on track, focusing on the important issues of addressing racism in the world.
"The issue of fighting racism and discrimination is too important to be derailed by anyone," de Rivero said.
Human Rights Watch called on Ahmadinejad to use his presence at the UN racism conference to announce an end to repression of the Baha'i people in Iran and a commitment to allow freedom of expression - an essential protection in the fight against racism worldwide.
Ahmadinejad's government routinely represses dissent and has continued the decades-old repression of Iran's religious and ethnic minorities, including the Baha'i religious minority (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2006/06/04/iran-scores-arrested-anti-baha-i-campaign), Human Rights Watch said. Iran's record of repressing peaceful dissent does great injustice to the struggle against racism and discrimination.
Human Rights Watch criticized the continued failure of the Obama administration to commit to participate in the racism conference. After attending previous discussions the United States had publicly announced key changes that it required in the draft final text before joining in. This week, US officials acknowledged that most of the requested changes had been made, including the removal of references to "defamation of religion" and the Middle East, but still said the United States would not return to the negotiations until all of its demands were met.
"Saying you won't negotiate unless everyone else accepts all your demands first is not the way to get the changes you want," de Rivero said. "This attitude is especially disappointing given President Obama's promise to engage with other nations rather than trying to impose Washington's will upon them."