In spite of a massive row over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech, the United Nations global anti-racism conference could still avoid failure, according to NGOs and campaigners.
Commenting on the Iranian leader’s opening speech at the five-day conference (20-24 April), Amnesty International's representative, Peter Splinter, said that "it was an unfortunate start but I don't think that it should do damage."
Before the Durban Review Conference began in Geneva, Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and the United States announced they were staying away, over differences with the draft final declaration or because of the participation of the Iranian leader.
Ironically, Ahmadinejad was the only head of state or government to accept the invitation of United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to speak at the conference - but the UN chief denounced the content of the speech as "divisive" and contradictory to the aim of the event.
In his speech, the Iranian leader said that "on the pretext of Jewish suffering," after World War II, the world’s powerful countries "sent migrants from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in occupied Palestine."
Representatives of the European Union countries taking part in the conference stood up and walked out. They did not return until Ahmadinejad had finished speaking.
Shortly afterwards the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU presidency, also decided to boycott the meeting.
Speakers at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy on Sunday 19 April had expressed their shock and outrage at the presence of Ahmadinejad at the Durban Review Conference.
The summit, organized by a coalition of human rights, anti-racism and pro-democracy activists, considered itself a civil society event running parallel to the governmental review conference.
The treatment of women in Iran, political prisoners in Cuba and Libya and the plight of people in Sudan’s Darfur region were among the issues aired.
One NGO representative at the Review meeting commented to Ekklesia about the Iranian leader's contribution: "Many of us agree that Israeli government policy amounts to apartheid, but we also despise the anti-semitism that Ahmadinejad condones and his appallling human rights record. His speech has set back the cause of justice for both Palestinians and Jews. But it is a gift to the Israeli government."
UN security staff escorted 11 people out of the building who were involved in incidents during the Iranian leader’s speech. They included Muslim and Jewish activists and a reporter.
Gianfranco Fattorini, representative of the Paris-based Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples (MRAP), criticised the countries boycotting the conference. He said they were leaving the floor open for "extreme positions".
He added that it does not make sense that countries which took part in the first Durban conference in 2001 and accepted the commitments adopted there, were now trying to convince other nations to pull out of the follow-up meeting.
Amnesty's representative Peter Splinter said: "I hope that the delegations will all remain engaged and ensure that the outcome document agreed last Friday" is approved. "I think it will be adopted provided we don't have any more desertions of the vote. It's a very weak document, but it's not objectionable; it forms an acceptable outcome for this conference."
Campaigners against racism say that they wanted something much more specific and action-oriented.
In spite of his criticism of President Ahmadinejad, echoed by the UN Human Rights Commissioner yesterday, Ban Ki-Moon has decried Western boycotts of an anti-racism conference.
"Some nations, who by rights should be helping to forge a path to a better future, are not here," the Secretary General said when he opened the meeting in Geneva, telling delegates he was "profoundly disappointed."
"I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside. I hope they will not do so for long," Ban added.
Meanwhile, in his Sunday address at St Peter's in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI expressed hopes for commonly undertaken constructive work to put an end to every form of racism through education and positive action.
The Holy See has been distancing itself from the criticisms of some Western countries and is giving its overall support to the UN conference.
The Pope said: "The Durban Declaration recognizes that 'all peoples and persons form a human family, rich in diversity. They have contributed to the progress of the civilization and the cultures that constitute the common heritage of humanity . . . the promotion of tolerance, pluralism, and respect can lead to a more inclusive society'."
He continued: "On the basis of these affirmations, firm and concrete action is required on the national and international level, to prevent and eliminate every form of discrimination and intolerance. Above all, a vast work of education is required, to uphold the dignity of the person and protect his fundamental rights. The Church, for its part, reiterates that only the recognition of the dignity of [humanity], created in the image and likeness of God, can constitute a sure point of reference for this effort.
"This common origin, in fact, gives rise to a common destiny of humanity, which should bring forth in each and in all, a strong sense of solidarity and responsibility. I express my sincere hope that the delegates at the Geneva conference may work together in the spirit of dialogue and mutual acceptance to put an end to every form of racism, discrimination and intolerance, marking a fundamental step toward the affirmation of the universal value of the dignity of man and his rights, in a context of respect and justice for every person and people."
One of the contentious issues has been attempts by Islamic countries to include in the declaration from the Review meeting a reference to "the defamation of religion". This has been criticised by civil rights and free speech activists, and seems to have been moved off the main agenda.