March 2, 2009 / 2:01 PM / 11 years ago

UN rights chief sees lobbying against racism meet

GENEVA (Reuters) - An international conference on racism next month has been the target of a lobbying campaign by groups that fear it would be sullied by anti-Semitism, the U.N. Human Rights chief said on Monday.

United National High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay during a news conference in Colombia, November 1, 2008. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Navanethem Pillay, a South African jurist, argued such concerns were unjustified and called on all countries to take part in the gathering, to be held in Geneva from April 20 to 24 to review the outcome of a similar meeting in Durban in 2001.

“I am fully aware that the legacy of the 2001 Durban Conference has been tainted by the anti-Semitic behaviour of some NGOs (non-governmental organisations) at the sidelines of that conference,” she told the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“And now the (Geneva) review conference has also been the target of a disparaging media and lobbying campaign on the part of those who fear a repetition of anti-Semitic outbursts,” Pillay said, adding: “This is unwarranted.”

She was speaking two days after the United States said it would not attend unless the draft text of the declaration to be issued — which it sees as anti-Israeli — was altered.

In discussions so far on the document State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the wording had gone “from bad to worse”, leaving the present text unsalvageable.

Two other countries, Canada and Israel, have already said they will boycott the meeting, widely dubbed Durban-II. Some European governments say they may also stay away if certain “red lines” — on Israel and other issues — are crossed.

The United States walked out of the conference in Durban, saying anti-Semitic demonstrations on the streets had been reflected in the conference itself and in its final declaration and programme of action.

Last month the new Democratic administration of President Barack Obama broke with the hands-off policy on the U.N. discussions of its Republican predecessor and sent a team to take part in negotiations on the Durban II text.

This move was fiercely criticised by U.S.-based Jewish groups, and some accused Obama of betraying Israel — which they say the draft declaration suggests is guilty of racism in its treatment of Palestinians.

European countries and the United States have also made clear that they oppose inclusion in the document of references to “defamation of religion” sought by Islamic states and backed by others in Asia and Africa.

They say they are also worried over what they regard as problematic formulations in the draft on freedom of speech and discrimination based on sexual orientation — or treatment of gay and lesbian people.

In her speech at the start of a month-long session of the 47-member Council on Monday, Pillay insisted the 2001 declaration “transcended divisive and intolerant approaches” and that suggestions otherwise were “distortions.”

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