In the end, disagreements over language for a final declaration at the UN Conference Against Racism proved so intractable that delegates were forced to extend negotiations beyond the conference’s official closing date. The Declaration and Program of Action that was finally agreed upon a day later reflected significant compromises on some of the most controversial issues, including slavery, colonialism and the Middle East.
After intense negotiations between the EU and African nations, slavery was finally acknowledged as a crime against humanity. However, no explicit European apology was issued, largely because the EU felt an apology would open the door to possible litigation. Similarly, while the document acknowledges that reparations have been paid by governments in the past for crimes such as slavery and colonialism, it does not endorse or recommend such a process.
On the Middle East, the final language was toned down several degrees from the initial harsh criticism of Israel that prompted United States and Israeli delegations to leave the conference in protest. The declaration recognizes the right of all states in the Middle East, including Israel, to security, and recalls the Holocaust as a tragedy that must never be forgotten. At the same time, it expresses concern over the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation, and recognizes their inalienable right to self-determination and an independent state.
Despite these results, many groups remained dissatisfied with the final declaration. Indigenous peoples in particular, lacking a government to champion their cause, felt they were not accorded the respect that other marginalized groups received. In fact, they left the conference midway through in protest over language that qualifies their rights as distinct from all other groups and subject to ongoing multilateral negotiations. Similarly, the Dalit (untouchables) of India went on hunger strike during the conference, protesting a lack of explicit reference to caste discrimination in the declaration.
The final outcome of the conference is difficult to measure. That the powerful nations of the world acknowledged, even indirectly, their past crimes against the powerless is undoubtedly a good thing. However, modern-day discrimination, in all its ugly forms (think slavery in Sudan, religious persecution in China, criminal justice in the United States) seems largely to have escaped scrutiny, as direct criticism of specific abuses too often gave way to depoliticized platitudes that avoid assignment of blame. Still, global racism and discrimination–and the deadly toll they inflict–were put on the world stage for a week in September, and that, at least, is an accomplishment.
Dispatch from Durban
September 4, 2001
Durban, South Africa