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Reflections on Durban | The Nation

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Reflections on Durban

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To some of us in Africa, it seems as if your new President is scared of getting involved. Whereas Clinton entertained us with his exploits, throwing apologies around liberally afterwards, Bush seems to prefer pre-climactic withdrawal. We are referring of course to the US government's premature departure from the World Conference Against Racism. This was the highest-profile pull-out ever staged by such a low-profile delegation. One wonders whether US officials were sent there with the express purpose of being withdrawn in protest.

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What Bush overlooked is that the damage has already been done, and the United States cannot dodge its responsibility by its absence. The damage we are referring to is the legacy of centuries of conquest, subjugation and economic exploitation on the descendants of slaves and on colonized and indigenous peoples. Granted, Bill Clinton's apologies pale into insignificance by comparison.

In reality, the former colonial and slave-trading powers needed this conference more than the so-called victims. This was a unique opportunity for Western governments to look on politely while representatives of the poor and marginalized aired their grievances, and for those governments to make a symbolic gesture in the direction of their victims--infinitely preferable to the hard-core demonstrators on the streets of Seattle or Genoa.

The European Union recognized this. The Belgian foreign minister stayed an extra night in Durban, holding up an important EU summit in Brussels, in order to try to come up with a final conference declaration. "One of the main reasons we need this conference to be a success" he said at his press conference, "is to provide a reply to the 'anti-globalists.'"

The message Europe wanted to give to the antiglobalization movement is that Western powers are aware of their historical responsibility for creating poverty and inequality and are on top of the situation. Fancy footwork by Europe insured just this outcome. The conference declaration denounces slavery and colonialism and recommends remedies based on a "developmental partnership," such as "promotion of foreign direct investment and market access."

Presto! Western elites are absolved of the guilt they might feel for having built their economies on systematic racial exploitation, and, as if by magic, minor modifications to their present economic policies are offered as remedies. No need for wild calls like reparations, and never mind a fundamental rethinking of contemporary capitalism. And as a bonus, Thabo Mbeki and leaders of other African elites consent to the outcome. Not a bad result for Europe. Seems like Bush missed the boat.

Even greater legitimacy was accorded the UN conference by the presence of thousands of nongovernmental delegates at the parallel NGO Forum. Not only did African presidents endorse the conference outcome but those boisterous civil society types, who have developed a predilection for trying to sabotage international gatherings of world leaders, had their own meeting just a block away.

Not surpisingly, the NGO declaration contains much more radical language than the official UN document. It condemns the contemporary racist exploitation by states of groups such as the Palestinians, the Dalits (or "untouchables") in India and present-day slaves in Mauritania and elsewhere. And it calls for direct financial reparations to be paid to the victims of racism. It also points to present forms of globalization as an ongoing source of racial inequality.

What impact will the NGO document have on the UN or its member governments? Perhaps the best indication of this is given by the response of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to the NGO document. Her first, private reaction was apparently to reject it outright. Later, at a press conference, she said that while it contained some good ideas, she could not recommend it to the main conference. In particular, she felt that its reference to Zionism as racism was unhelpful.

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