The Conference that Wasn’t

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

Apart from bringing to the fore such interlocking issues, the Durban meeting—the first UN antiracism conference held in the post-apartheid era—has profoundly changed the understanding of racism and racial discrimination. For NGOs and many developing country governments, the conference themes are inextricably linked with current economic patterns that have made rich countries richer, poor countries poorer, and the gap wider between rich and poor everywhere. They frame the debate on racism in terms of economic integration on the one hand—through globalization, which they see as a continuation of colonial integration, with its exploitation of labor and natural resources—and social disintegration of vulnerable communities on the other.

"We will speak of poverty and globalization, of debt and a trading system that doesn't allow the countries of the world to feed their families," Mercia Andrews, president of the South African National NGO Coalition, which organized the forum, proclaimed to loud applause at the opening. "Our declaration not only names victims but also perpetrators."

South African president Thabo Mbeki spoke of countries struggling against a "global apartheid." "The divide between North and South, between developed and developing countries, also coincides with the divide between black and white," he said. "Some of the worst victims of globalization are those who are not white. Globalization creates the structural disempowerment of millions, making them permanent welfare cases whose welfare is decided by the bounty of a minority."

Such a definition goes far beyond racism as an attitudinal prejudice and sees it as a symptom of underlying structural and institutional inequities. "There is a huge shift in the understanding of race and racial discrimination, of its sources and causes, and a much broader listing of victims," said Sunila Abeysekera, a human rights lawyer and activist from Sri Lanka.

Alongside Palestinians, Kurds, Tibetans, and the Roma (Gypsies)—longtime symbols of political oppression—were Australian Aborigines, and U.S. Native Americans, along with Chilean and Argentine Mapuche people struggling against environmental racism at the hands of governments and corporations. Afro-Latino descendants in the Americas and the Caribbean were here seeking visibility and participation, as were Nepalese women trafficked into prostitution, Filipina migrant workers suffering racial and sexual abuse, and members of the Uyghur Muslim minority facing repression in China. In short, scores of people from countries worldwide facing these and other forms of racial discrimination, old and new, made this messy summit an important attempt at building common ground.

The movement being born in Durban is a shift from the Seattle anti-WTO movement, says Mahmood Mamdani, a social scientist from Uganda and director of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University. "Seattle's single focal point was the market, the inequalities it breeds, the limits it does not recognize. Durban is focused on the state and the denial of rights through state-enforced discrimination. This is a global conference that brings together context-specific concerns but still flags a single concern—racism. But can the language of race illuminate all forms of oppression? asked Mamdani. "Caste preceded colonialism. Ethnic discrimination did not begin with colonialism."

The U.S. boycott—which also occurred at both previous UN-sponsored world conferences against racism—angered and dismayed Americans at the meeting. "The issues of the conference are the human rights issues of the 21st century. The U.S. withdrawal sends a signal that these are issues too difficult to discuss, and is simply unforgivable," said Michael Posner of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The U.S. has a big domestic agenda related to race, he said, and could have used this opportunity to reach out to civil rights leaders.

Many saw the U.S. focus on Zionism as a diversionary tactic to duck the question of reparations. "The United States' refusal to participate in this most important of conferences is at base another refusal to acknowledge and discuss appropriate reparations to all that have been seriously harmed by its racist policies and practices," said Adjoa Artis Aiyetoro, a civil rights activist and founding member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.

The final text agreed upon at the conference amounted to an apology, calling on those responsible for slavery "to take appropriate and effective measures to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of those practices." Declaring slavery a crime against humanity, which was blocked, would have far-reaching legal implications for countries that once engaged in the slave trade. The final document finesses the question: " . . . slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the trans-Atlantic slave trade. . . . " But an international movement for reparations will likely move forward. "Reparations is a major shift from affirmative action—it's not a favor or concession; it's about injury, collective-based and nation-based, and could result in more of an organizing movement," said Mamdani

UN high commissioner Robinson, who endorsed the tabling of reparations on the agenda, said that language adopted by the global community that seriously recognizes the hurts and exploitations of the past could help heal old wounds. And she said the "solemn language" needed to be backed by "a program of support." Robinson announced that the UN would set up an antidiscrimination unit to take up the final recommendations from the conference.

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