Durban Update

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

As the World Conference Against Racism reaches its midway point, negotiations over language for the final document have seemingly ground to a halt. Delegates cannot seem to find the elusive wording that will acknowledge the crimes of the past, highlight current racist practices, but most importantly offend no one and name no names. Illuminating reality without recourse to truth is proving a difficult proposition.

There is no shortage of marginalized groups here. The Dalit of India have come, representing some 200 million untouchables, hoping to draw attention to one of the most overlooked and egregious forms of racism in the modern world. The Roma from Europe have arrived, as have the Native Americans, the Aboriginal Australians and a large contingent of African-Brazilians.

The United States was here too for a while, sort of, using the cover of defending Israel to justify its hostility to the conference. America spent its time challenging nearly every word of the text, objecting to language that might actually require it to take actual steps to combat racism or acknowledge that slavery was a crime against humanity. The other nations here shed no tears when the United States announced it was leaving; if America chooses not to take part in a global debate on racism, they reasoned, then good riddance. (Any legitimacy the United States might have conferred on the meeting by remaining and signing a final document would have been undercut by our insistence on a vague declaration that avoided real issues anyway.)

The Europeans are no better. They bristle at the slightest mention of colonialism. Certainly they have no desire to examine the brutality that allowed their empires to flourish. A development fund to help repair the damage done by colonialism was briefly considered, but that seems a distant memory. Now they will give nothing. Belgium leads the way; tiny Belgium, which killed so many in the Congo, opposes reparations to former colonies.

Fidel was here, speaking to the opening session of the forum, giving a fifteen-minute soliloquy on the interconnectedness of global racism and corporate imperialism. When he concluded his talk–off to give a three-hour speech (more his style) at a nearby rugby stadium–the delegates and most media cheered him. They seemed overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of a man who has defied the world’s most powerful nation for forty years and lived to tell the tale.

The Congressional Black Caucus is here. Its members held a press conference yesterday, criticizing the obstructive role the United States has played in Durban. And they spoke of reparations for slavery. America refuses to address the issue, but it simply will not go away. At the press conference, a reporter from Canada seized on statements by several African leaders here–those who favor debt relief instead of cash for reparations–to excitedly inquire if there was a split (a split!) between Africans and African-Americans. She was hotly shouted down by both the audience and the CBC members, who derided her for seeking the sensational. The real story, they reminded everyone, is the US refusal to make an honest assessment of its colossal historical crime.

And then there is the drafting committee, where the final document will be drawn up. That is, if delegates can ever agree on language acceptable to all. Should “peoples and States” be in brackets, no brackets, or do we nix the entire phrase? No less than twenty-five nations made statements about these three words during one discussion. The moderator, without even a nod to the surreal nature of it all, postponed further debate on the offending phrase until new consultations could be scheduled.

So while debate over language continues until the wee hours of the morning–past four am last night–the marginalized from around the world are waiting. Waiting for their their plight to be mentioned in the almighty text. Waiting for the conference to endorse creation of a monitoring body with teeth, one that will actually do something to countries that turn a blind eye to systemic racism. Waiting for an apology, for redress for past crimes. Waiting.