The Conference that Wasn’t


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.

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.

African governments and civil society groups believed the conference could go further and make concrete attempts at remedy. Recommendations made by the conference toward helping victims of both slavery and colonialism are primarily directed at developing countries and include: debt relief, poverty eradication, building or strengthening democratic institutions, promotion of foreign investment, transfer of technology, and investment in health infrastructures, education, and training, among others.

It would seem that the complex issues raised in Durban call for thoughtful and reasoned debate over causes and remedies. But the opportunity has been lost in the cacophony over two—Zionism as racism and reparations for slavery—which polarized the conference. Even if the formal outcome of the conference is mired in denial and defensiveness, it marks an important start in the discussion. As Robinson told the plenary, “The issues we are grappling with are among the most sensitive and difficult which the international community and the United Nations have to face.”

Some groups believe valuable alliances and networks begun here will help them pressure their governments at home and shape an international movement against racial discrimination. “If we want to create a world network of coalition politics, this is the best environment in which to do it,” said Luke Charles Harris of the African American Policy Forum in Poughkeepsie. The process of clarifying issues that civil-society groups have gone through here has “real potential for an antiracism movement,” added George of Isis International. Durban 2001 could then well signal for the human rights movement what Seattle 1999 did for anti-globalization.

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