Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday that 10 years after a controversial U.N. conference to combat racism, intolerance and discrimination are increasing in many parts of the world.
The U.N. chief urged all countries to "stand firmly" against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and reject discrimination against Christians. He also called for an end to discrimination based on race, color, language, political opinion, gender or sexual orientation.
The 2001 conference in the South African port city of Durban ended in fierce acrimony amid accusations that it had been hijacked to bash Israel, Zionism and Jews.
The U.N. maintains that confusion between the official gathering in 2001 and a parallel conference of non-governmental organizations "fuels many of the misperceptions about anti-Israel sentiment in relation to the World Conference."
But the language at the official gathering _ walked out of by the U.S. and Israel _ was harsh on the Jewish state. Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinian leader, described Israel as having "a supremacist mentality, a mentality of racial discrimination," while Cuban leader Fidel Castro accused it of perpetrating "genocide against the Palestinian people."
The final communique dropped condemnations of the "racist practices" of Israel and Zionism. And the conference itself quickly faded from public attention when the U.S. was hit with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
At Thursday's high-level U.N. commemoration of the Durban event, the secretary-general said there had been progress over the past decade, including new laws to protect against genocide, apartheid, ethnic cleansing and slavery _ and people's antennae "are better attuned to see the insidious forms of discrimination."
"Yet we must acknolwedge that intolerance has increased in many parts of the world over the past decade," Ban told the General Assembly. "The resurgence and persistence of such inhumane attitudes and detrimental practices indicate that we have not done enough to stem the tide."
The United States, Israel and a dozen other countries announced that they were boycotting Thursday's commemoration.
A competing parallel event was held at a hotel across the street, featuring speakers including former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
"You don't have to be a human rights activist or a Harvard Law professor to understand that the Durban Declaration has been contaminated by the taint of racism that it claims to fight" Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor said at the opening of the parallel gathering.
In anticipation of possible outbursts during the official meeting, the secretary-general stressed that its aim was to further the fight against racism and "we should condemn anyone who uses this platform to subvert that effort with inflammatory rhetoric, baselss assertions and hateful speech."
Ban said "the stakes are high" because ignorance and intolerance are among the root causes of conflicts, and racism and discrimination are major obstacles to economic development.
He urged governments to ensure that unemployment and deteriorating living standards aren't used as excuses for attacks on migrants and other vulnerable groups.
Taking aim at political parties preaching xenophobia, Ban said: "We must resist polarizing politicians who play on people's fears and use stereotypes to gain electoral advantage."
Ban's warning of escalating discrimination and intolerance was echoed by General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser who called the continuing scourge of racism and xenophobia "one of the most critical challenges of the 21st century."
"Racist atttitudes and hate speech can be found in many countries and the Internet provides a new vehicle for their proliferation," he said.