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28 Apr 2009 : Column 248WH—continued

He was referring, of course, to the establishment of the state of Israel, but even the most cursory look at history demonstrates that, in fact, the battles to create the state of Israel were for some years rather fiercely fought by Governments from the west, including our own Government, which was involved in something of a war situation in the period leading up to the establishment of Israel.

The essence of the racism of Ahmadinejad, in playing to his domestic audience, is to deny the rights of the Jewish people to self-determination; to move well beyond legitimate language and rhetoric; and to deny the holocaust, something that he was persuaded to drop, or not to do, in this particular UN speech. However, the critical issue is what is going on in the United Nations? Of course, the United Nations is, by definition, all member states.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is one of the most assiduous Members of this House, and he is right to raise awareness of racism, which is simply evil. What is the UN doing to educate people and to promote education? Is it doing enough? Does the hon. Gentleman think that it could do more?

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John Mann: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. One of the things that the UN does is to promote holocaust education, although it is not taken up by many member states. Within the UN, there is a unit specifically geared to the promotion of holocaust education.

One of the interesting dilemmas and problems with the Durban conference, the Durban review process and the Geneva conference is that, in a conference looking at anti-racism, the problems in the run-up to the conference for several years and the problems in the conference itself were about racism, including overt racism. Such overt racism was exactly what was seen in the first Durban conference, when there was some of the most vile and vitriolic racism that one could ever imagine at any international conference. Therefore, it is well beyond irony that an initiative against racism should become a festival of hate and racism.

That poses dilemmas for democratic countries that have an ongoing proud record of standing up and doing things against racism, including ourselves, the United States and many other countries. Some chose to boycott the conference. Some did so early—the Canadians made a brave early refusal to participate, and I congratulate them on that. The United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and several other European countries withdrew on the eve of the conference, and I congratulate them on their stance. Others, led by the United Kingdom, chose to participate and attempt, with significant success, to influence the final declaration and keep it within the red lines of what is acceptable, so as to prevent a document being used around the world to further the aims of those who wish to use racism in the name of anti-racism.

Those Governments should be congratulated, not least because they, led by Britain, walked out when Ahmadinejad made his pronouncements. I do not intend in this short debate to discuss the whys and wherefores of which tactics should be used. I think that all three strategies—the early Canadian stance, the later stance taken by Germany, Austria and the United States, and the stance of the British, the Norwegians and others within the conference—have credit and merit. It would be a significant mistake to argue about the tactics that that wide array of democratic countries chose in trying to counter the hijacking of the UN’s work in anti-racism.

We need to think about why the UN got itself into that position in the first place, because it ought to be in the lead against all forms of racism, including, but not only, anti-Semitism. That is part of its ethos and why this country and others formed it in the aftermath of the second world war, because racism, xenophobia, and specifically anti-Semitism, had dominated the world agenda and led to that war. That was the genesis of the UN.

I hope that the Government, on the back of another problematic UN conference on anti-racism, are working with our democratic allies to look at how the UN repeatedly gets itself into such predictable problems as it did in Geneva, albeit to a much lesser extent than had happened at the original Durban conference, because of British and other governmental involvement.

Parliaments around the world have a strong desire to fight racism and anti-Semitism. In London only two months ago, we, along with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, hosted the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism, of which I
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was a co-founder, bringing 42 countries from across the world together to establish the London declaration, which takes forward the work on how to combat anti-Semitism domestically and internationally. I am delighted that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other senior Ministers have signed the declaration. This afternoon further senior Ministers, including the Leader of the House, will sign the declaration at 5 pm. The Liberal Democrat leadership have signed it, and we hope and anticipate that in the near future the Conservative party leadership will also find time in their busy schedules to sign it. Although they are not present today, I assure them that they will receive the same warm and good publicity received by Labour and Liberal politicians and, of course, by independents—I know that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is a strong advocate of our work, a member of the all-party group against anti-Semitism and a backer of the London declaration. Throughout the world, parliamentarians are becoming increasingly involved in taking on contemporary anti-Semitism, alongside other forms of racism, but we must use that strength to ensure that international bodies, including not least the United Nations, take that into their work. How the UN interacts, which experts take forward its work on anti-racism, how it interacts with Parliaments and Governments, and how it carries out its peer review process of ensuring universal scrutiny of all UN member states are critical.

We must go further. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has a much smaller remit than the United Nations in dealing with racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, but it has appointed special rapporteurs—until recently, Gert Weisskirchen was the special rapporteur on anti-Semitism from the German Bundestag—to work for the president in office to combat anti-Semitism and to take a lead. It has done likewise with Christianophobia and Islamophobia and appointed special rapporteurs. That is one model that could be considered, although I favour expanding the administration, bureaucracy and civil service of the United Nations with a unit with specific authority to take forward the UN’s work on anti-Semitism.

There is a unit for holocaust education, and its work, remit, budget and powers need to be expanded. It was not involved in the preparatory process for the conference, and it should have been. Holocaust education is a discrete and bespoke element of huge priority. Anti-Semitism is part of the genesis of the United Nations and should be at the core of its fabric rather than being brought in by Governments such as ours, the American Government, the German Government, the French Government and others who believe that it is an important domestic and international priority. Democracies in the UN should stand up when it comes to racism and anti-Semitism, and not allow non-democracies or people who would abuse democracy, such as Ahmadinejad, to steal and usurp the agenda, as has been done recently. That undermines the UN’s strength and the international efforts of Governments such as ours to combat the historic legacies and current realities of dealing with racism.

Finally, communities throughout the world that are directly impacted in their daily lives and their opportunities by the vileness and hatred of racism, including the Jewish community in this country, believe that the United Nations is not for them, because it will not take up their
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issues. We must counter that within the UN and in the way in which the United Kingdom Parliament and Government interact with the United Nations. That is a big challenge, and I hope that the Government will take it on, and that they will not only continue their good work domestically, but tackle the thorny issue of how the UN is failing to deal with racism and ensure not only that our voice is heard, but that our standards and ethics in dealing with racism become the UN’s work in practice in dealing with racism and anti-Semitism. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

1.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing this important and high-profile debate in such a timely fashion. I know that he is chair of the all-party group against anti-Semitism. Moreover, as we have all seen today, he is a powerful and articulate champion in the struggle against anti-Semitism, and long may he be so.

I should like to put it on record that the all-party group is both groundbreaking and unique. It sets the standard, and it clearly inspired the recent inter-parliamentary conference against anti-Semitism, which was actively supported by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister with responsibility for human rights. I am pleased that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was able to support both the conference itself and the follow-up to the all-party group’s inquiry. The Government fully support the aims of the declaration.

The Government are committed to fighting all forms of discrimination, racism and intolerance, which are unacceptable in all their forms, including anti-Semitism. We continue to develop policies and legislation to address such issues, both in the UK and globally. It is vital that we work with our partners to combat effectively the range of challenges that we face today.

My hon. Friend mentioned the range of responses to the Durban review conference and how the different reactions mesh together to have good effect. Let me deal with the issue of the UK’s engagement in the conference. We share the principal objective of the conference, which is to further the global fight against racism, and to review progress in that effort since 2001.

Millions of victims of racism around the world, as well as representatives from many organisations in the UK, expected us to show the political courage to address the issues, and not to leave the conference free for others to peddle their intolerance. The conference last week was the final stage of a long, tough and controversial multilateral negotiation. It was a very different conference from 2001. Non-governmental organisations from the Jewish community were better involved. Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust, said:

Let me focus on two elements of the process, starting with the formal negotiations. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has explained in his written statement to the House today that the UK’s engagement in the review process always came with clear red lines. We made it equally clear that, if those red lines were crossed, we retained the option of withdrawing. Specifically, we
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said that we could not accept a repeat of the flagrant anti-Semitism seen in the Durban conference in 2001. In the outcome text, we would not accept any attempt to restrict freedom of expression, including through the concept of “defamation of religions”.

I am glad to say that the UK delegation was instrumental not only in securing our red lines, but in agreeing improved UN language on the issue of racism, which my hon. Friend said was so important. We secured language in the outcome document that stated that the holocaust must never be forgotten and that stressed the importance of the fight against anti-Semitism. We successfully kept out language that sought to single out Israel for criticism. The outcome document was adopted by consensus on 21 April, including by Iran. The document is a significant improvement on previous UN texts, including the 2001 Durban declaration and the programme of action.

I turn to the anti-Semitic rantings of the Iranian President. Some called on the United Kingdom to boycott the conference in expectation of such a statement, or to withdraw from the conference following the Iranian President’s intervention. The UK delegation, along with many others, left the conference hall once he started his abusive tirade. We were simply not prepared to leave unchallenged a description of Israel as a “racist state” founded on the “pretext of Jewish suffering”. Such a walk-out is not usual in international diplomacy and it sent a clear, strong message that such language is completely unacceptable, as is denial of the holocaust.

The Iranian President’s speech received international condemnation, including from the UN Secretary-General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Foreign Secretary called the remarks

and said that they were

for having been made at the UN’s anti-racism conference. In his statement to the conference on 22 April, the British ambassador to the UN in Geneva explained that our delegation had left the hall not only in protest, but in solidarity—this is important—with those targeted by such hateful, anti-Semitic words. Such people include members of the British Jewish community, with whom we enjoyed a constructive relationship throughout the process of preparing for the review conference, and with whom we continue to enjoy a constructive relationship.

Walking out during the Iranian President’s statement sent a powerful message, as did our return to the hall to listen to those who sought to engage in a constructive effort to address the challenges of racism today. The reaction of many in the international community, coupled with a successful negotiated outcome document, means that the decision to stay at the conference was right, although it was not an easy option for us to take. I welcome Amnesty International’s call for those countries that did not participate in the conference nevertheless to support its outcome document.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw rightly asked a number of questions about the UN’s role. The UN tackles racism in a range of ways, although there is always room to work within such a multilateral organisation to achieve further improvements. First, beyond the Durban conference, the UN has special rapporteurs on racism and religious intolerance to hold countries to account. Secondly, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial
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Discrimination makes detailed and regular assessments of states, laws and policies. Thirdly, the universal periodic review—the state-to-state peer review process—also covers racism.

I have heard my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we have a particular anti-Semitism unit, and I will raise that with the Minister responsible for human rights. Let me return to the conference, however, because it is important to reflect on it. The Iranian President’s intervention was undoubtedly an attempt to drive a wedge between nations and peoples. We cannot allow him to succeed, and the UN will continue to be an important vehicle for us in that respect. Where the Iranian President seeks to polarise opinion, we need to work doubly hard to bring people together around a single desire to take concrete steps to combat racism in all its forms, wherever it occurs. The long and painful conference process shows that we can make progress on even the most divisive issues. However, the controversy surrounding last week reminds us just how far we have to go and how important it is that we keep working to tackle such problems.

The focus on last week will sharpen still further the UN’s views and its commitment to going forward. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

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He also said that the Iranian President’s statement clearly went against the long-standing UN position on equating Zionism with racism, which was adopted by the General Assembly. In addition, the UN Secretary-General said:

We must all turn away from divisive messages in both form and substance. We must join hands and work together to achieve a constructive, substantive agenda to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The Government remain committed to action against the scourge of racism in all its forms, including anti-Semitism, so that we can secure a fairer future for victims of discrimination around the world. My wish, my hope and our absolute intention is that the events of last week will focus us and the UN still further and that we will seek actions of the type that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw so rightly calls for.

Question put and agreed to.

1.55 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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