Thoughts on the World Conference Against Racism

18 June 2001
June 18, 2001

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I had the honour of representing NAWL at the UN World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa recently. My memories are a collage of bodyguard-flanked dignitaries, trumpeting elephants, begging toddlers, red carpets, shanty towns, giraffes, protest marches, grazing rhinos, meetings and street vendors. Having returned from the conference less than a week ago, what follows are more first thoughts than reflections regarding the NGO Forum, the Conference, and South Africa.

The NGO Forum

The NGO Forum began with much promise. The Opening Ceremonies offered both spectacle and substance. The high point of the Ceremonies was the address by South Africa’s President, Thabo Mbeki, who delivered his speech against a backdrop of the yin-yang conference logo and a huge bronzed skeletal globe, and amidst a sea of Zulu dancers who had remained on stage following their performances. President Mbeki’s address was the most insightful speech I have heard from a Head of State. To thunderous applause he noted, as has been said, “as long as the lions do not have their own historians, so long will the hunters emerge as heroic, mighty, and right.” He then brought a gender and race analysis to those words, as he did throughout his address. He concluded his address by stating his conviction that, “we who are gathered here stand at an extraordinary moment in historic time when it is possible to break through the sound barrier that has, for centuries, defined some as superior and others inferior, simply on the basis of race and colour… Time is out of joint. You (as delegates) have the duty and possibility to set it right.”

Sadly, the Opening Ceremonies proved to be one of the few bright spots in the NGO Forum for me. The lowest point was the blatant anti-Semitism. When Jewish groups met to review the draft NGO Declaration, Palestinian groups shouted throughout their session. Reportedly, at the daily anti-Israeli marches, one NGO delegate held a placard stating Hitler Should Have Finished the Job! Even more dismaying was that the NGO Forum singled-out the Jewish Caucus by censoring a paragraph proposed by them while adopting EVERY other paragraph proposed by EVERY other group, including several highly inflammatory paragraph s submitted by pro-Palestinian groups. In the end, 5 international NGOs, including Amnesty International, denounced the NGO Declaration. More importantly, because of the myopic inclusion of those paragraphs, Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights was only able to accept the NGO Declaration; she could not commend it to the Official Conference. In effect, the irresponsible actions of those who participated in the adoption process rendered the hard work by many, many others to be in vain.

The Official World Conference Against Racism (WCAR)

Only 750 of the thousands of NGO delegates were able to attend the sessions (passes were distributed daily on a first-come, first-serve basis). Hence, it is somewhat difficult to evaluate the WCAR, as I felt very removed from it. Still, I have reflected somewhat on the USA’s actions and the WCAR process overall.

I have a few thoughts regarding the pull-out of the United States. First, it was nonsensical. Simple logic alone dictates that if they truly cared about anti-Israeli rhetoric appearing in the final Declaration, they would have stayed to fight to ensure that it would not appear. Never in my life have I seen the USA back away from a fight. I cannot help but feel that they constructed a pseudo-high road to exit the conference so they would not have be a party to a UN document that raises the issue of reparations for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Second, I believe the pull-out severely hampered Canada’s position. Following the US departure, the fate of the conference lay in Canada’s hands. As a result, Canada was relegated to the role of mollifier rather than world changer. Canada fell dramatically in the eyes of NGO’s world-wide because of the compromising positions it took. Finally, I am forced to admit that the USA’s bad behaviour both before and during the conference raised the profile of the WCAR to a level that it would not otherwise have achieved.

Given all of the different positions that each of the 170+ countries arrived in Durban with, it is quite amazing that anything was accomplished at all. In the same forum where Brazil proposed the addition of a paragraph acknowledging that sexual orientation-based discrimination can exacerbate experiences of racism, Iran issued a thinly veiled threat that there would be blood on the floor before the Declaration would make reference to sexual orientation. Hence, the wishy-washy nature of the Declaration is understandable — not acceptable, but understandable.

South Africa

South Africa is a truly beautiful country. I met many wonderful South Africans, both Zulu and Xhosa. Like many who had been involved in the Anti-Apartheid movement, when Nelson Mandela was elected as President, I moved South Africa to the back of my mind — pleased with the job well done. As I saw the miles of shacks in the townships and witnessed first-hand the abject poverty in which millions of Black South Africans live, I came to the realization that the hard work in South Africa is just beginning.

Parting Thoughts

Overall, despite the disappointments and frustrations that were very much a part of the NGO Forum and the WCAR, I would never trade my experiences. I was extremely privileged to have been a part of the process, both in Geneva and in Durban. Ultimately, I was in South Africa at a time when leaders and representatives from 170+ countries were focussed on racism — it doesn’t get much better than that!

Catherine Meade sits on the NAWL Steering Committee.

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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