A report on the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance



By A. Rico Speight

Rico Speight is an independent producer/director/writer of film and theatre; he is also a film and video editor and educator. His production credits include documentaries, narratives, television productions, web productions and live theatre.

The UN World Conference on Race (WCAR) held August 31-September 8 in Durban, South Africa, has been sidelined in the media by occlusive coverage of the September 11th World Trade Center attack.  Few of WCAR’s many critics have linked the horrific attack with the dissension over the Middle East that was fomented at Durban.  But few observers have drawn the connection that should be made between the anti-racism conference and the World Trade Center attack.

Ironically, it was President Bush, clearly not a fan of the conference, who came closest to making the connection between the two events.  In his address on terrorism before a joint session of Congress, Mr. Bush asked “every nation to join …(in the)… fight of all who believe in …pluralism, tolerance and freedom..”  Basically, his appeal was a restatement of the objective of the conference to “reaffirm principles of…international cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights…

Terrorism is a political derivative of racism and related intolerances.  This was acknowledged in paragraph 18 of the NGO declaration: “…racism…and related intolerance are the basis of gross violations of human rights and hate crimes…”  Pity that our nation (and the world) should be so immediately awakened to the tragedy of isolationism just 3 days after the conference ended.

From the start, some grand purpose appeared to be in progress at Durban.  The officious opening ceremony of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance–even the name implied a certain munificence and scope—set a tone.  As the procession, led by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, filed into the hall of Durban’s International Convention Center (ICC), thousands of delegates from more than 150 countries stood in reverence.  Some applauded as El Jefe, Cuban President Fidel Castro walked pass.  Yassar Arafat, Algeria’s Abdelazia Bouteflika and Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila were also among the 16 heads of state in the impressive entourage.

In his opening remarks, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared “…if we leave here without agreement, we shall give comfort to the worst elements in every society.”  That theme was repeated by Cuban President Castro who warned that if the conference didn’t succeed, “what lies before us can only be worse than what we have left behind.”  But it was host President Thabo Mbeki whose remarks presaged the contentious negotiations soon to follow, “…there are many in our common world who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white …These are a people who know what it means to be the victim of rabid racism and racial discrimination. Nobody ever chose to be a slave, to be colonised, to be racially oppressed.  The impulses of the time caused these crimes to be committed by human beings against others.

In a world where race remains a deeply divisive force, it came as no surprise that a world conference against racism would generate vigorous and even virulent political debate.  But as awful as the strife observed in Durban was the inflammatory venom put out by some mainstream media regarding conference proceedings.  At one point, UN Commissioner Mary Robinson told delegates that “the press wants us to fail”.  And so it seemed.  On 17 August, the NY Times editorialized in a piece titled  “A mean spirited UN conference”.   Later, NY Times columnist Bob Herbert thrashed the WCAR in a commentary of his called,  “In America; Doomed to Irrelevance”.   The negative tone struck in the NY Times was reprised in the London Daily Telegraph’s September 4 article,  “A hateful Conference”.

In the weeks and days leading up to the conference, US threats to boycott dominated American press coverage.  After deciding to send a low ranking delegation to Durban, Secretary of State Colin Powell summoned them back to Washington two days later.  The precipitous withdrawal was said to be in response to “hateful” anti-Israeli language in conference documents.  However some EU delegates suggested it was fear of massive reparations claims by African Americans that prompted the recall of the American delegation.  This view was shared by the African and African Descendents Caucus at the NGO Forum.  In its statement issued September 4, one day after the walkout, the Caucus charged that the US had “…rationalized its opposition to even a discussion of reparations by unfairly linking it to the demands of the Palestinian people that the national oppression and racial discrimination visited upon them by the State of Israel be condemned.”

As host nation, South Africa wanted the conference to succeed.  But not every South African favored the idea of hosting the notable event.  Some white South Africans had been alienated by a national anti-racism conference held in South Africa the year before and were skeptical of having another race conference.  On the opening day of WCAR, a coalition of South African grass roots activists, squatters, workers, and students calling themselves the Durban Forum staged a mega demonstration, more than 10000 strong, to protest the failure of the conference to address South Africa’s own economic discrimination issues.  Simultaneously, the South African

Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) held a 2-day general strike condemning the ANC Government’s moves to privitise.

Despite spirited protests in the streets of the beautiful port city, thousands of delegates made their way to Durban.  Into the thick of the highly-charged political milieu, they continued to arrive, not knowing exactly what to expect of the historic endeavor.  Some of the comers were true believers, some were merely hopefuls, while others were skeptics and a bit cynical of what really could be achieved.  There were also those that questioned whether democratic South Africa was materially equipped to handle the logistics of such a mammoth event.

WCAR, the main intergovernmental conference, drew over 2500 delegates from 163 nations.  That sophisticated gathering of governmental delegates—mostly men (and a few women) in suits–was singularly impressive in its uniformity.  But there was one Canadian delegate who arrived in the full regalia of traditional attire, topped with a very large, beautifully multi-coloured feather headdress.  Hundreds of media paparazzi were also on hand and ubiquitous security personnel.

Across the street at Kingsmead Stadium, the NGO Forum (August 28-September 1) was anything but uniformed.  That parallel event of more than 7000 delegates from 150 nations was a funky grassroots affair.  On the grounds of the cricket field one could see the Dalits  (“Untouchables”) from India connecting with dreadlocked Rastafarians from Jamaica.  Blacks from the Americas and across the continent traded experiences with dozens of ethnic minorities including indigent Polynesians, Sri Lankan Tamils and the Buraku people of Japan.  The Kurds from Turkey, the Romas (“Gypsies”), the Osu and Oru people of Nigeria, Tibetan monks, British Muslims, Eskimos, American Indians and the indigenous peoples of Canada all came together.  The diversity of participation was one of the high points of being there.

As expected, the hundreds of African Americans at Durban were a strong vocal presence. Professor Manning Marable, Chair of Columbia University’s Department of African American Studies, caused a stir when he presented theories on “whiteness”, connecting it conceptually with property and theft.  And it was the African Americans who led the push for reparations for the victims of slavery.  The African and African Descendents Caucus and the December 12th Coalition were among the African American organizations that lobbied assiduously to have reparations included in the intergovernmental document.  Several African American Congressmen, members of the Black Leadership Forum, denounced the US Government for dodging the reparations issue.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism dominated negotiations in the latter days of the conference.  Those discussions caused great dissention.  And at one point it was feared that WCAR, like two previous UN race conferences in 1978 and 1983, would collapse before reaching closure.  When the US and Israeli delegations pulled out, some US diplomats expected the Europeans to follow suit.  However, the EU delegates did not leave, choosing to stay in Durban to protect their interests.  Some German officials reportedly criticized the US for pulling out and even the British called the US decision “a pity”.

At the outset, the Europeans were split on the issue of colonial responsibility.  Britain and Spain were very concerned about legal liabilities.  Both adamantly opposed apologizing for their role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  On the other hand, the Germans and the French were willing to issue some form of formal apology for their role in the slave trade and colonialization.

There was also a range of views among the African states regarding the slavery debate.  Namibia demanded an explicit apology from states that benefited from slavery and colonialism.  And Namibian delegates as well as the African Americans and some African leaders were in favor of some form of reparations.  But other African leaders, including President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal were not in favor of reparations, and instead pushed for trade benefits and foreign aid.  In order to avert a deadlock, South African delegates moved away from insistence upon an explicit apology.  In lieu of reparations for slavery victims and descendants, the South African leaders sought debt relief and foreign aid without strings for colonized African nations.

It took an extra day to reach agreement on an intergovernmental document.  Finally, on the eighth day, a compromise was reached calling upon signatories to acknowledge “that slavery is a crime against humanity and should always have been so” and expressing an apology in the form of an  “acknowledgment for the wrongs of slavery” and offering economic assistance to Africa.  By confining the conception of “slavery as a crime against humanity “ to the present and not dealing with its criminality in the past, legal liabilities were apparently avoided.  Also, in the agreement the idea of reparations was not connected to the slave trade.

The final WCAR declaration and plan of action was adopted by 163 nations.  But critics charge that the document was watered down and failed to bring attention to many causes emphasized at the conference. While the cause of the Romas was addressed in the document, other groups including the Barakumin minority of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria and minorities from Senegal and

Mauritania were excluded.  Conference president Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma expressed regret that other concerns like the issue of India’s Dalits were excluded.  President Mbeki summed up the results in this way: “None of us achieved everything we wanted, but we have stated a historical process which provides us with a solid foundation to continue the struggle for a better world for all.

By comparison, the NGO declaration went further than the intergovernmental document on many of the important issues raised in Durban.  On the issue of slavery and colonial responsibility, the NGO document was direct and unequivocal: “ We demand that the United States, Canada, and those European and Arab nations that participated in and benefited from the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the Trans-Sahara Slave Trade, the Trans-Indian Ocean Slave Trade, Slavery and the Colonization of Africa…(as well as)…the United Nations …shall…Ensure that…all nations, groups and their members who are the victims of crimes against humanity based on race, colour, caste, descent, ethnicity or indigenous or national origin are provided reparations…(including)… Restitution…encompassing the unconditional return of land… Monetary compensation that will repair the victims, including Africa, Africans and African descendants, by closing the economic gap created by these crimes…”

However UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson refused to recommend the final NGO document to the intergovernmental forum because of the language used regarding Israel. NGO Forum President Moshe More contextualized Robinson’s response: “…only three paragraphs (418, 419 & 420) were a bit problematic … those are the three paragraphs that the High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to, the paragraphs that she had a problem with …but I think the High Commissioner respected also that the document itself was a reflection of the voices of the victims…

As an African American filmmaker, I personally had a very visceral response to the conference.  Gathered in Durban were the minds, hearts and bodies of more than 10000 individuals assembled for the express purpose of eradicating racism. Just as expressed in the NGO declaration, this assemblage embodied “the richness of the diversity of cultures, languages, religions and peoples in the world and the potential within this diversity to create a world free of racism, racial discrimination, genocide, slavery, xenophobia and related intolerance…. “  That was the image I saw at dinnertime each day in the conference dining hall.

The conference also worked for me on a philosophical level.  It confirmed the existence of racism at a time when so many are in denial and it affirmed the fact that so long as racism persists in society, we all are its victims—both those upon whom racism is perpetrated as well as the perpetrators.  As noted in the NGO declaration, “racism is an ideological construct” that bestows one race with social and political power over another.  That kind of racial superiority or privilege ultimately becomes a crutch that denies to its possessor the rewards of his own efforts.

A Canadian Youth Summit delegate and reporter for the Young Peoples Press made an observation about a conference billboard she saw which read:  “YOU”RE Not A Racist, Right?” The young reporter said every conference backpacker she met remembered that quote.  And so did I.

Ultimately, Durban was a clarion call to arms in the fight against racism, racial discrimination, genocide, slavery, xenophobia and related intolerance.  It provided us all with yet another opportunity to expand the limits of our humanity by facing ourselves concerning race.  As suggested by that billboard, each one must submit to his own scrutiny in this regard.  The consequences of not doing so could be deadly.

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