Controversial Durban committee meets in Geneva – Day 1

 The Ad-Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complimentary Standards was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2006, in accordance to the Durban Declaration and Program of Action. In its previous sessions, the Committee dealt with highly contentious and controversial issues, such as defamation of religion and incitement to religious hatred, which often polarized the debate.

Unable to elect a chair in October of last year following the resignation of the Algerian ambassador, the Committee postponed the session to the following year. On Monday, April 11, 2011, the Committee resumed. Scheduled to last two weeks, the first day of the session has already evidenced tension.

The first item of business was the election of a chair. Ambassador Jerry Matjila of South Africa, was appointed chair. In a show of humility, Ambassador Matjila admitted that no country can say it is immune from manifestations of racism, not even his own. He expressed his desire to find common ground between states, that he respected the unique and varied approaches of each country. The Ambassador set ambitious goals, and appealed to each state to draw on the diversity of others in order to move this process forward.

After adopting the provisional agenda, the chair moved to a matter on which there was great divergence: the program of work. Ambassador Majila insisted on asking the Committee to adopt a blank program of work – a schedule that would say when the committee was meeting, but not what they were meeting to discuss. This was opposed strongly by the EU, supported by the US and Switzerland. Iraq also acknowledged that the absence of the topics to be discussed from the program of work is “mysterious” and “ambiguous.”

The EU expressed a number of reservations, most importantly on the substance of the discussion and the methodology to be used. It warned of “an adventure with tsunamis and earthquakes.”

The Chair responded that he would resign if the committee did not trust him. Later, he was persuaded to circulate the list of four topics he chose for discussion, out of a list of 22 possible ones, and went on to explain them in more detail.

The first topic was xenophobia. In an atypical moment of self-reflection, the Ambassador of South Africa condemned the recent xenophobic attacks in his country, where, “foreigners were burnt alive,” calling them “shameful.” He also said that they need to define what “Xenophobia” means, to which countries expressed concern that this endeavor is outside of the Committee’s mandate.

The second topic on incitement could potentially bring back the deleterious notion of “defamation of religion,” which was removed at the last HRC session. The Chair argued that discussing it at this stage was “ripe.”

The third issue, racism on the internet, required technical expertise, Switzerland argued. The EU said that at the Council of Europe, the issue was dealt in the wider framework of cybercrime. Having not ratified the protocol of the council of Europe, the USA said it was in no position to discuss this theme in the ad-hoc committee.

Last but not least, the fourth issue, racial profiling after September 11, also raised eyebrows.

The EU’s first reaction was to ask the Chair how he was possibly able to narrow the list to these four topics and expressed its concern that certain of these themes  were out of its “comfort zone,” and not appropriate in the ad-hoc committee. The USA and Switzerland were trying to identify where the chair was trying to lead them with these subjects. The USA proposed to merge item 2 with item 4.  Switzerland concluded that it was willing to accept topic 1 and 4 but topic 3 isn’t a subject they would be willing to discuss.

During the discussion, Nigeria for the African Group said that “the EU confirmed his fears and suspicions that they are not willing to see the process take off the ground.”

The Chair, leaving the door open for new discussions topics, added “racism and sports” and “the establishment and maintaining of national mechanisms to prevent racism” on his list. A compromise was reached to suspend the meeting till Wednesday, April 13, in order to allow for consultations with capitals. On Wednesday and Thursday the topics will be discussed in an informal setting, facilitated by the Ambassador of Botswana. The resumption of the formal process is set for Friday, April 15.

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