United Nations Durban Review Conference

Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs written statement – made on 28th April 2009.

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Photo of David Miliband David Miliband Foreign Secretary

I would like to update the House on the UN Durban Review Conference, the follow-up to the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance which took place in Geneva from 20 to 24 April. The Government are firmly committed to the elimination of all forms of racism and intolerance. We engaged in this conference because we share its goal of fighting racism.

The UK's engagement in the review process has always come with clear red lines that, if breached, would have led to our withdrawal. We made clear in particular that we would not accept a repeat of the appalling anti-Semitism seen at the first Durban conference in 2001. And the outcome text would need to meet a number of explicit conditions.

In the event, we negotiated a text that did meet those conditions. In particular, we resisted attempts for language calling for restrictions to the right of freedom of expression, including through the concept of "defamation of religions". We secured language on Holocaust remembrance (to which Iran objected but then, in a minority of one, agreed) and the fight against anti-Semitism, and successfully rebutted attempts to single out any country for criticism in the outcome document. We also ensured the text included references to multiple forms of discrimination—which we interpret to cover also the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people—and the importance of the right to freedom of expression in combating racism.

Given that the UK and its partners were successful in achieving our red lines in the outcome document, we decided that the UK should participate in the conference. But we shared the concerns of those who feared the misuse of this conference for intolerant ends and worked hard to avoid such a scenario. I wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 17 April making it clear that we would not accept intolerant behaviour in the conference.

On 20 April, on the first day of the conference, President Ahmadinejad of Iran delivered a statement to the conference, in which he made unacceptable comments describing Israel as a "racist Government" established on the "pretext of Jewish suffering". The Government deemed these comments offensive, inflammatory and utterly unacceptable. That such remarks were made at the UN's anti-racism conference was all the more shocking and outrageous. On instructions agreed between several like-minded countries, the UK delegation—along with a number of others—left the hall in protest and in solidarity with those targeted by the Iranian President. The delegation returned to the hall once the Iranian President had finished speaking.

The British ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Peter Gooderham, delivered a statement on 22 April condemning the Iranian President's speech, but also making it clear that we did not want to leave the stage only to those, like President Ahmadinejad, who would take global efforts against racism backwards. We remained in the UN conference because we wanted an outcome that advanced global efforts against racism. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also condemned the President's interventions, as did many other speakers.

The UK delegation kept in close touch with UK-based non-governmental organisation stakeholders throughout the conference.

The fight against racism remains a global struggle. Victims of racism deserve better than political squabbling and intolerant polemics. I believe that the Government did the right thing by remaining in the conference, having our voices heard, and ensuring an acceptable outcome document.