United Nations

Amid controversy, the World Conference against Racism reaches consensus

The 160 some governments gathered at the World Conference against Racism agreed on a number of specific steps aimed at combating racism, principally through prevention, education and protection measures at the national level, and by closer international monitoring

DURBAN, South Africa - After nine days of intense and often difficult deliberations, governments represented at the World Conference against Racism (WCAR) agreed to an international action plan that condemns racism, xenophobia and intolerance in all forms and calls for concrete efforts by the international community to eradicate them wherever they may be found.

More specifically, the 160 some governments gathered here agreed on a series of steps aimed at combating racism, principally through prevention, education and protection measures at the national level, and by closer international monitoring

Significantly, governments also agreed on text that expresses regret for the human suffering caused by slavery, declaring it a crime against humanity and saying it always has been one. The text also calls the practice of slavery a "historical injustice" that has "undeniably contributed to poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion, economic disparities, instability and insecurity that affects many people in different parts of the world, in particular in developing countries."

"The Conference recognizes the need to develop programs for the social and economic development of these societies and the Diaspora within the framework of a new partnership based on the spirit of solidarity and mutual respect," the Declaration continues, specifying that such programs should occur in the areas of debt relief, poverty eradication, building or strengthening democratic institutions, promotion of foreign direct investment, market access, agriculture and food security, technology transfer, health, education, and the "facilitation of welcomed return and resettlement of the descendants of enslaved Africans."

Reaching a final accord on the issues before the Conference was not easy. Two topics were especially controversial: the possibility of requiring reparations for the past practice of slavery and the degree to which the conflict in the Middle East can be related to racism. Originally scheduled to run from 31 August 2001 to 7 September, the Conference was extended by one day, as delegations sought to find wording on these issues that would satisfy all parties.

In the end, however, governments and UN officials expressed satisfaction that the outcome of World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, as the event was officially known, was a significant step forward in many areas.

"Many questioned whether it would be possible to reach consensus but we have succeeded and that is no small achievement," said Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the secretary-general of the WCAR. "We now have a series of concrete recommendations - for national plans and programs, for better treatment of victims, for tougher anti-discrimination legislation and administrative measures, for universal ratification and implementation of ICERD [the International Committee on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination] and other relevant international treaties, for strengthening education (a most important area), for improving the remedies and recourses available to victims, and many more."

A new view on development aid

Some human rights specialists said that the language on the issue of slavery and its legacy is especially significant because it establishes a greater sense of moral responsibility for development efforts by northern countries.

"It is essentially saying that development aid is not any more just a nice thing that Western or Northern governments give to Southern governments," said Antoine Madelin, the representative to the UN of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues. "It means that debt relief and other forms of development aid are not only nice gestures, but they are also a way to repair the wrongs of the past."

Other elements of the program of action include calls for all nations to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by 2005; wider use of public and private investment to eradicate poverty in areas predominantly inhabited by victims of discrimination; and the implementation of policies and measures designed to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion or belief that many people of African descent experience.

On the issues related to the conflict in the Middle East, language was found which expressed concern over both anti-Semitism and "Islamophobia" - and which also recognized both "the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent state" and "the right to security for all states in the [Middle East] region, including Israel…"

According to the United Nations, there were 2,300 representatives from 163 countries, including 16 heads of state, 58 foreign ministers and 44 ministers, at the Conference. Nearly 4,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and more than 1,100 media representatives were accredited.

"In the past, people had a tendency to view racism through their own eyes," said Diane Ala'i, who headed the Bahá'í International Community's delegation to the Conference. "And many equated racism with just the problems between blacks and whites.

"But this Conference, because of the diversity of issues addressed and the wide range of delegations among the NGOs, raised awareness that racism is multifaceted in its scope," said Ms. Ala'i. "It gave voice to some of the previously voiceless groups, like the Roma. It drew attention to the fact that slavery is still practiced in some countries at the beginning of the 21st century. And it also showed how racism and religious intolerance and various forms of xenophobia cannot be dissociated from each other."

NGO Forum

Some 6,000 representatives from 2,000 NGOs also held a separate NGO Forum before the Conference, running from 28 August to 1 September. Like the main UN Conference, this event was also marked by controversy, principally because a number of NGOs squared off over the Middle East conflict.

The NGO Forum issued a 9,000-word Declaration that, essentially, included wholesale the positions of the various interest groupings or "caucuses" that had assembled for the Forum. Accordingly, the document takes sometimes conflicting positions. Included, for example, is language from the "anti-Semitism" caucus expressing concern "that Jewish populations and institutions continue to be targets of threats and acts of violence in countries around the world." At the same time, there is language from the "Palestinians and Palestine" caucus that declares "Israel as a racist, apartheid state."

The NGO Forum's International Steering Committee (ISC) decided to include language from all of these caucuses, however controversial, as a way of seeking to reflect the diversity of views expressed at the Forum.

The International NGO caucus, however, chose not to participate in the vote on the final NGO document. As well, the Bahá'í International Community, which is a member of the International NGO caucus, issued its own statement to the WCAR, which called for the recognition of the oneness of humanity as the "antidote" to all forms of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.