In 2001 I traveled to Durban, South Africa, to join the tens of thousands of people who came to participate in the United Nations-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. More than 2,000 came from the United States, a rainbow of people crossing all lines–racial, ethnic, national, language, immigration status, religious and much more–joining an equally diverse crowd from across the globe. It was an extraordinary opportunity to meet, discuss, argue and strategize over how to rid the world of these longstanding evils.
Our participation paralleled that of the official US delegation. And that’s where we faced a huge challenge. The Bush administration team, having only grudgingly agreed to participate at all, made clear they had no real commitment to fighting racism or offering leadership on other challenging issues of discrimination. When they didn’t like a few small parts of the sixty-one-page text, they packed up and walked out of the conference. It was a sad but hardly surprising moment, exposing once again the history of US failures to take seriously the consequences of its own legacy of racism, a point most recently made by Attorney General Eric Holder.
The 2001 Declaration expressed powerful truths. It stated: “We acknowledge and profoundly regret the massive human suffering and the tragic plight of millions of men, women and children caused by slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide, and call upon States concerned to honour the memory of the victims of past tragedies and affirm that, wherever and whenever these occurred, they must be condemned and their recurrence prevented.” Another part declared, “We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.”
Now, eight years later, the United Nations is convening the Durban Review Conference in Geneva April 20 to 24 to review and assess the progress since 2001. Member nations have toiled for two years to craft an outcome document that assesses the current analysis and challenges. This document–which called for particular measures to provide support and reparations to all the victims both of long-ago histories, like the descendants of the European-Atlantic slave trade, and those facing contemporary forms of discrimination and apartheid policies, such as the Roma, the Dalits (India’s “untouchables”) and the Palestinians–was rejected by the Obama administration.