Durban, South Africa—At the first International Youth Summit over 500 young people representing more than 40 countries, from Kenya to the United States, gathered in a posh conference room at a local Holiday Inn. Their aim: to build a network of global youth resistance and create a manifesto of demands for action from the official adult handwringers at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR).
The youth convened to discuss discrimination and oppression of the young with some daunting figures facing them: 47 million children live in poverty worldwide. Over 2 million children have died in wars in the past decade and over 250,000 children are currently soldiers in wars waged by adults. Two million women are currently held in sexual servitude; over 80 percent of these women are under 24.
Supported and financed by the UN as an opening event for WCAR, the summit only allotted its young attendees one and a half days to discuss their agenda. Katie Miranda, a 21-year-old Cuban American from New York said, “It may be impossible to create a unified, concise document in that short of a time, but at least we have begun the conversation that the UN doesn’t want us to have.” That conversation—including the links between U.S. policies in Africa and Asia and poverty worldwide—is what the youth say is being left out of the adult proceedings.
“It’s easy for everyone to say they are against racism,” said Dipou Mahlatsi, a young South African woman from Soweto. “But they won’t take action on the policies that keep people of color in poverty. In South Africa, economic apartheid is continuing. The economic policies in South Africa— modeled on World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies—are betraying young people.”
For Mani Jorge Stanley, an indigenous Kuna from Panama, racism in his country is also economically based. “The politics of globalization are the politics of the market and leave no place for the indigenous people,” he said. “Policies like Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Areas of the Americas will destroy us.” He points out that the Kuna have been decreasing in population each year and that much of their land is slated to be demolished to make way for low-wage textile factories.
Teanau Tuiono, a young Maori man who is part of the international People’s Global Action Network, added, “We have to talk about the economic situation because often it’s the working-class whites in New Zealand who lose their jobs and take it out on us. I say, ‘Hey man, we’re not the one who privatized all the industries.’ ”
The young delegates discussed a wide-ranging array of selected topics: minority rights and citizenship; colonialism, foreign occupation, and new forms of apartheid; reparations; health and the environment; poverty and economic globalization; education, the media, and legal justice. A strong contingent argued for sanctions against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The questions about reparations for Africans and those of African descent centered on what kind of compensation these people should receive, not whether there should be any. And there was unanimous support for considering the caste system as a form of racial discrimination (something the UN has been wary of).
The U.S. did not have an official representative and actually pulled the three “Model UN” youth delegates out in the middle of the conference. Many young attendees lambasted U.S. support of the Israeli occupation, the country’s dominance over the WTO and IMF, and its support of repressive regimes in Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Indonesia. While the disproportionate number of youth who came on their own from the U.S. pointed toward the reality of U.S. privilege, Salmanth Tuv was frustrated by the lack of representation from most Asian nations. “I think I’m the only person from Cambodia here,” he said. “The third world should dominate and instead, as always, the U.S. is dominating.”
Third World Within, a network of organizations of people of color in New York City, brought 18 young people to Durban to emphasize how racism in the U.S. parallels racism internationally. Blue, a young Latino man, shook his head at how similar the stories that he heard at the youth summit are. “The police brutality and poverty we experience every day are similar to what people of color all over the world experience,” he said. “And it’s not going to end by having a bunch of governments sit around and talk about it.”
The final 21-page Summit Declaration did what the typical UN document does not—it linked abstract language about tolerance and anti-racism with concrete economic and political policies, including a demand for international abolition of the death penalty, free pre-and post-natal care and medicine for all women, and international divestment of Israel until there is a withdrawal from the occupied territories.
Although United Nations High Commissioner Mary Robinson praised the Youth Summit and the “energy and dedication of the young people that push us forward,” there’s little chance that phrases from the final Youth Summit Declaration, which call for implementation of International Labor Organization standards worldwide and the canceling of third world debt, will make it into the final UN conference document. After all, the UN spent months arguing over whether it would be too radical to add an s to “indigenous people.”
This was the third UN conference against racism in the past 30 years, and despite all the talk and an official “Decade to Combat Racism,” for many young people—from Panama to Indonesia to Nigeria—racism and the poverty that accompanies it have only gotten worse. “They keep wanting to know what to do about us,” said Danielle Garcia, a 13-year-old with WILD for Human Rights, “but when we tell them, they don’t want to listen.”
Change may take confrontation. What young people did so well at the conference—and what they have always done—is to interrupt talk and demand action. Some of the loudest applause at the summit came when two young delegates directly confronted Commissioner Robinson. At the closing session, Manar Farrg, a 15-year-old Palestinian girl from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, walked up to Robinson and demanded, nicely, that Robinson say something about Palestine. Later Farrg said, “I used to think the refugee camp was Palestine and Palestine was the world. Then I went to visit my village. And my village said to me, ‘I want you. I want all of you.’ And so I knew I had to be the last generation to suffer and struggle.”
“We can either be the next generation of leaders or the next generation of statistics,” Naina Dhingra of the International Youth Leadership Council said. The youth at the summit can’t afford to wait for the UN to make that decision for them. They will return to countries, including the U.S., where daily survival is a struggle and where taking a stand means risking their lives. The global youth network could be the beginning of a lifeline, as it continues to confront those in power by modeling the difference between talk and action.
“Durban Diary” by Rachel Neumann
“Toxic Tour: A Visit to Waste-Dumping Sites Shows UN Conference to Be Ignoring Environmental Racism” by Deepa Fernandes
“Compensation Counts: An Activist Speaks on Reparations and the UN Conference Against Racism” by Chisun Lee
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2001