The Conference that Wasn’t

The Fight Over Zionism-Equals-Racism Pushed Aside Many Issues

Durban, South Africa—The demands were loud and long as more than 5000 people from around the world gathered in this coastal city for a United Nations world conference on racism, held in a country emblematic of the struggle against one of its worst forms. The range of issues brought by this gathering of activists ran from reparations for slavery in Africa, freedom from apartheid in the Israel-occupied territories, and an end to caste discrimination in South Asia to equal rights for ethnic minorities, migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities and HIV/AIDS; to self-determination for indigenous peoples. Their kaleidoscope of experiences more than fully represented "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance"—the official themes of the conference. * The furor over the issue of Zionism as racism—which led to the pullout of the United States and Israel in a blaze of publicity— obscured this phalanx of issues from the public gaze. For the thousands of activists of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), however, the conference was an immense opportunity for learning and exchange, for candor and criticism, and for alliance and solidarity. "Civil society has taken the time to bring a rich diversity of difficult issues to our attention," United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said, admonishing the media for their narrow focus on the contentious political issues. The huge presence of civil society made this conference significantly different from the previous two in 1978 and 1983, which were mainly conversations among governments. "Silence is being broken. We're being made aware," she said, "that every country has problems of racism and racial discrimination."

Not all the discussions and outcomes at the week-long NGO forum of the world conference were smooth and democratic and consensual. Divisions arose from the presence of governmental NGOs (GONGOs), from the fact that activists were trying to define a range of context-specific issues in terms of race, and from the implication that racism can make people—and communities and nations—simultaneously victims and aggressors. Sometimes it seemed that the question of Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories—which threatened to derail the intergovernmental meeting—would overcome the NGO forum as well.

Encounters between Palestinians and Israelis were marked by bitter acrimony, and most sessions on issues of foreign occupation and anti-Semitism dissolved in a clamor of opposing slogans and clashing banners from the two sides. Palestinian banners saying "Zionism = Racism" were everywhere, and chants of "Sharon Assassin" rent the air every day. The final NGO forum declaration describing Israeli acts against Palestinians as genocide provoked sharp criticism and rejection not only from High Commissioner Robinson but also from large and influential NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Some of these organizations have consistently documented and condemned Israeli human rights violations in Palestine, but found the use of the word genocide to describe them inflammatory and inaccurate by international law.

Even if the NGOs were by no means a united front, they shared information that had never been shared before. Indians learned about Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist on death row in Pennsylvania in a case involving the murder of a policeman, and Uruguayans threw themselves behind the cause of the Asian Dalits. "We are becoming more sensitized to one another's issues. I believe the solidarity will come," said Susanna George of Isis International in Manila, a feminist information and communication NGO.

The striking success of the Dalits in raising the issue of caste discrimination is a case in point. "Whether or not paragraph 73 [introducing the notion of discrimination based on descent and work] is adopted, the Dalits are clear winners," said George. "They have been upon us with their bandannas, badges, jackets, posters, and drums. There is not one person in the conference who doesn't know who the Dalits are."

The 250-strong Dalit contingent at the meeting—galvanizing groups that are victims of caste discrimination in 12 countries in South Asia and Africa and Japan—broke through the Israeli-Palestinian sound barrier and managed to embarrass the Indian government, which fought strenuously to keep caste off the conference agenda. They focused attention on the continuing discrimination faced by these so-called untouchables, especially in India, where more than 200 million Dalits, predominantly unorganized laborers, suffer centuries-old discrimination, worsened by globalization policies that have made their work and survival precarious. "The recalcitrant position of the Indian government has only helped us further,"said Smita Narula of Human Rights Watch.

Indigenous peoples' groups, although a small minority of about 100 at the forum, also made big strides. Those from Latin America, for example, did not know much about Afro-descendants in the Americas and had no idea that indigenous peoples could be black, said Amanda Romero of Comité Andino from Colombia. "We have learnt that so many issues unite us—lack of access to land, resources, education, and health." The Asia-Pacific region was a bazaar of issues of various forms of discrimination and intolerance, added George—from indigenous peoples and internally displaced persons and refugees to Dalits, women in armed conflict, and self-determination struggles in Tibet, Papua New Guinea, Aceh, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Palestine.

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