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UN Rights Chief Claims Durban A Success, Slams Critics

FRANK JORDANS   04/24/09 02:52 PM ET   AP

Switzerland Human Rights

GENEVA — The U.N.'s top human rights official hailed the global body's second racism conference as a success Friday, despite what she called a disinformation campaign that almost derailed the meeting.

Navi Pillay, who spoke as the five-day conference wound down, said countries managed to go beyond issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to discuss broader problems of discrimination and intolerance in many parts of the world.

The U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights said some campaign groups had tried before the meeting to brand it a forum for hate and urged governments to stay away. She did not identify the groups.

"We have had some rough moments in the process, but a hate-fest? I'm sorry, but this is hyperbole," Pillay said. She said there was a "highly organized and widespread campaign of disinformation."

Pro-Israel groups warned before the conference that it could see a repeat of the anti-Semitic outbursts that marred the first global racism meeting in Durban, South Africa, eight years ago.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech on the opening day backed the critics' argument that the global body is unable to tackle the problem of racism in an acceptable manner. The Iranian leader accused the West of using the Holocaust as a "pretext" to harm the Palestinians, and branded Israel a "repressive racist regime," prompting protests from Jewish groups and a walkout by 23 European countries.

Raphael Haddad, president of the French Union of Jewish Students, said the presence of Ahmadinejad at an anti-racism conference called into question the whole purpose of the event.

"For anybody involved in fighting against racism, this conference was just a big circus," he said. The group made its point by dressing in multicolored wigs and throwing red clown noses at the Iranian leader during his speech.

Pillay said the meeting was "a strange, rough and tumble affair full of smoke and mirrors, I must admit, yet very definitely a success story with plenty of goodwill."

Ahmadinejad's speech largely overshadowed the swift agreement by over 100 countries Tuesday of a broad declaration against racism and discrimination of minorities.

The 143-point declaration reaffirmed principles agreed on at the 2001 Durban meeting, when the U.S. and Israel walked out because some participants had taken the Jewish state to task over its treatment of Palestinians.

"The fact that the outcome document was agreed just one day after Mr. Ahmadinejad's appearance was a clear rejection of the intolerance contained in his speech," said Philippe Dam of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Countries who have signed up to the declaration now have a clear agenda to improve their record in the fight against racism, he said. Dam cited the mention of the plight of domestic migrant workers and unaccompanied migrant children as two concrete issues that were addressed for the first time in a global forum of this kind.

Others expressed concern that the conference had failed to address issues ranging from bonded labor in the developing world to ethnic conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and caste discrimination.

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On the Net:

U.N. racism conference: http://www.un.org/durbanreview2009/

U.N. Web cast of Ahmadinejad's speech: http://tinyurl.com/cza66v

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Filed by Jessica Gusman  |