At the end of this summer, an event will take place that could change the way the world thinks about one of its most vexing problems–racism. From August 31 to September 7, the United Nations will hold the “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance” in Durban, South Africa. Bringing together leaders of governments and NGOs from around the globe, the conference will address problems of discrimination ranging from the oppression of indigenous peoples to anti-immigrant hostility, caste discrimination and the legacy of slavery and colonialism.
Previous UN gatherings on the topic of racism, in 1978 and 1983, were dominated by the long shadow of apartheid in South Africa, where the combination of local activism and international scrutiny proved uniquely powerful. Who could have dreamed at the time of the 1983 conference that this year’s meeting would be held in a democratic South Africa in which Nelson Mandela is a universally respected ex-president?
The focus that past meetings had on a single pariah government, however, allowed other countries to criticize discrimination abroad without addressing problems within their own borders. Now that the most blatant symbol of state-sanctioned racism has fallen, the emphasis will be on more complex forms of discrimination that, to some extent, plague all nations. As Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Ireland, said in a recent interview: “Things were sort of simpler in a way during the previous conferences, whereas now we must get beyond the stereotype of the ‘terrible racist’ and recognize in all of us the potential for racist attitudes. Things are subtler, more insidious, and we really have to address them courageously and honestly.”
For that reason, this year’s conference is sending shock waves of discomfort through governments around the world. As Gay McDougall, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Group, recently told the New York Times, “the last two conferences were about foreign policy…this one is in everybody’s back yard, and there’s a lot of nervousness about it.” Such anxiety may stem from fear that the conference could produce real change. For a number of countries, it will be crucial in providing a forum to raise difficult questions of racism and xenophobia for the first time.
The World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, is a powerful example of how aggressive international collaboration and advocacy by NGOs and governments can force taboo issues like domestic violence and trafficking in women onto the world stage. A number of organizations that were key players in the Women’s Conference, such as the Afro-Brazilian women’s organization Geledes, are taking leadership roles on the road to Durban. One of the most important contributions of those activists is the notion of “intersectionality”–the idea that racism is intertwined with dynamics of gender, poverty and other characteristics. Certain groups of women are victimized sexually, for example, not only because they are women but also because they belong to a vulnerable or stereotyped racial group. Durban will build on the more sophisticated analysis of racism that was developed in Beijing.