Analysis: UN seen avoiding another big racism conference

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The confrontation over Israel that largely eclipsed this week’s UN conference on racism means the United Nations is unlikely to tackle such a broad agenda on a similar scale again.
The broad-brush approach adopted by the United Nations to racial prejudice had allowed Israel’s critics to use the first UN racism conference in 2001 as a platform to attack it, Reuters reports.
As a result, the 2009 version suffered high-profile absences even before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the podium to accuse Israel of racism, prompting a walkout.
UN human rights investigators said future efforts to tackle discrimination should be much smaller in scope.
Githu Muigai, the Kenyan UN special rapporteur on racism, said the conference drama showed a need “to keep inflammatory ideological debates away from concrete, technical work that really needs to be done on the area of racism”.
“Many of the issues that came to dominate the debate have essentially nothing to do with the debate on racism, on the programme that needs to be adopted on racism,” he said.
“I think that there is a lesson there for the UN system as a whole in regard to many of the issues that arise, and this one as well.”
And Asma Jahangir, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said it was hard to give a good airing to politically sensitive topics in such a forum.
“We cannot look at race and religion in the same basket,” the Pakistani national told a news briefing.
Fears that the conference would be overrun by criticism of the Jewish state prompted Washington to boycott the meeting along with Israel and seven other states.
Images of dozens of delegates streaming out of the UN hall as the Iranian president spoke raised questions about whether the United Nations erred in holding the conference.
By that time Israel had recalled its ambassador to Switzerland to protest the event and a meeting between Ahmadinejad and the Swiss president.
Diplomats in Geneva quickly shook off the disruption from Ahmadinejad’s address and on Tuesday approved an anti-racism declaration that emphasised prejudice and inequalities affecting ethnic minorities, foreign workers, refugees and the poor.