20 Apr 2009

NZ boycott of UN anti-racism conference sparks debate

10:30 pm on 20 April 2009

The Government has decided that New Zealand will not attend a United Nations conference against racism being held in Geneva this week.

The United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, opened the controversial meeting on Monday.

He says it is designed to review progress in fighting racism since the UN's first such gathering eight years ago in Durban, South Africa. The United States and Israel walked out of that conference when Arab states tried to define Zionism as racist.

Mr Ban told the meeting in Geneva that the current economic crisis could lead to an increase in racism.

He says he deeply regrets the decision by a number of Western nations, including New Zealand, not to attend the conference.

The United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Israel and Sweden have pulled out, citing concerns about anti-Western and anti-Israeli bias.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully says he's not satisfied the wording emerging from discussions held ahead of this week's meeting, will prevent the conference from descending into the same kind of "unproductive debate" that took place in 2001.

He says the conference is not likely to advance the cause of race relations, so New Zealand will not be represented at it.

Prime Minister John Key says New Zealand is in good company in its decision to pull out.

He says the Government shares the concerns of those countries that the conference will restrict the freedom of expression and be used as a platform for attacks on Israel. He says the decision was not made lightly.

NZ Human Rights Commissioners disappointed

The country's race relations commissioner, Joris de Bres, is at the conference representing the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. He says he is extremely disappointed by New Zealand's withdrawal.

Mr de Bres says it makes it difficult to have the dialogue that needs to take place.

"New Zealand has a very high reputation at the United Nations for the way in which it operates - with a form of independence, but without sacrificing any of the principles that we hold dear, and those include the issues that have been raised as a concern."

The Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Roslyn Noonan, is concerned about the misinformation surrounding the conference.

She says there is nothing in the programme of action that any New Zealander would disagree with, and she cannot find any evidence of what some people claim is contained in the document.

"I can't find anything for example that smacks of anti-Semitism; quite the reverse."

Labour and Greens oppose boycott

Labour leader Phil Goff says it is a mistake for New Zealand to join the boycott.

He says New Zealand is an independent country and should be speaking with its own voice.

The Greens also oppose it. Foreign affairs spokesperson Keith Locke says the United Nations has gone to great lengths to remove any offensive clauses.

"Surely, rather than running away from the great majority of countires in the world and kicking sand in the face of the UN, we should be there arguing our position."

Mr Locke says New Zealand is letting down the victims of racism around the world.

Jewish Council view

The New Zealand Jewish Council has welcomed the government's decision.

Chairperson Geoff Levy says the 2001 conference was a disaster and the Geneva meeting was heading down the same track.

Mr Levy says he would welcome New Zealand's attendance at a conference on racism - as long as it adheres to the values held by New Zealanders.

UN human rights chief shocked

This year's draft final declaration, which has been causing much heated debate, has been watered down to remove all references to Israel and the Middle East.

However, at the request of Middle East nations, it still contains a clause about the incitement of religious hatred, which many Western countries see as a curtailment of free speech.

UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, says she is "shocked and deeply disappointed" by the boycotts.

"A handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance," the AFP news agency has quoted her as saying.

Ms Pillay has called on governments to use the meeting to figure out how to ease ethnic and racial tensions that threaten migrant workers and minorities, and could worsen if more people lose their jobs in the economic downturn.