Reports on the World Conference on Racism

No rocks were thrown, no tear gas canisters exploded. Compared to recent conferences in Seattle, Quebec, and Genoa, the World Conference against Racism, held from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7 in Durban, South Africa, was a sedate affair. The reason is obvious. It was sponsored by the UN, which doesn’t yet have the same image of supporting unrestrained corporate globalization as the World Bank, WTO and, FTAA. Thus, activist groups felt they had a toehold inside the conference.

Nevertheless, verbal outbursts and devious efforts to manipulate the wording of the final Declaration and Platform for Action sometimes made this third global conference on race feel as rancorous as recent corporate gatherings. In addition, South African grassroots organizations, given a megaphone to the world with the help of a newly formed South African Independent Media Center, surrounded the conference site with marches and demonstrations. Starry eyed divestment activists quickly learned that the nine-year-old ANC government has a long way to go in fulfilling the utopian goals of its Freedom Charter.

The reparation issue was a primary concern for many US Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), including the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). By the time we reached Durban, the small army of US activists, estimated at a quarter of the 10,000 delegates, were adamant that the conference affirm that "slavery is a crime against humanity" and reparations and other remedies should be provided at the national and international levels. For African Americans, this means repairing the injuries inflicted on them as a group, from the slave trade and Jim Crow laws to the institutional racism of the present day. Globally, the goal is justice for all racially oppressed groups, including money and structural changes.

Obvious collaborators were African countries, whose losses during the era of slavery and ensuing colonialism fueled the gains of the US and colonial powers such as France and England. Still, the African states were under pressures of their own. Out of this awareness came the NGO caucus group of Africans and African Descendants, which was responsible for the largest protests outside the conference and the most significant lobbying inside. Spokespeople for the caucus firmly supported Palestinian rights, though most would ruefully agree with Jesse Jackson, who flew in for a few days, that "the Middle East issue is absorbing most of the oxygen at this conference."

Ironically, the NGO Conference was marked by a lack of representation from Africa. Its tent was virtually empty, while the Asian, Middle East, and Latin American tents buzzed with activity. In the daily conference newspaper, one critic pointed out that "at a world forum taking place in Africa … burning African issues appear to have been all but ignored.

"For nearly three years now, the bloody war in Congo, which has claimed an estimated two million victims, has drawn less attention in the mainstream media than the suicide bombers in Jerusalem. The presidents of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda were all in Durban for the opening of the conference, yet their remarks went virtually unreported."

After arduous late night wrangling, much of the wording supported by US NGOs was accepted. But it may be a Pyrrhic victory. Two months later, the UN Secretariat hadn’t released the final Declaration and Program of Action. Kofi Annan is mainly concerned with three action-oriented paragraphs that deal with condemnation of and apologies for slavery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism, and genocide, and call for "concerned states to take appropriate remedial and other measures to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of those practices." Under pressure from the Western Europe and Other (WEO) group, the secretariat wants those calls in the declaration, where they would have no practical impact. The African group insists that he stick to his mandate: representing all nations in the General Assembly.

And so, the struggle goes on.

Robin Lloyd is the publisher of Toward Freedom