South Africa is preparing to host the World Conference Against Racism beginning August 31 in Durban. A top organizer of the event says the conference will deal with issues stemming from the slave trade and colonialism, as well as new forms of racism in Europe and elsewhere.
Organizers say that since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there have been important advances in the fight against racism, discrimination, and xenophobia.
But they say that even though technology is bringing people of the world closer together, intolerance continues to ravage many societies. They cite the 1994 Rwandan genocide as one example, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans as another.
Leading South Africa's efforts to host the conference is Abdul Minty, deputy director general in the the country's foreign affairs department. "We have issues that are before the conference, which are very emotional," Mr. Minty says. "It deals with historical relationships arising out of the slave trade, out of colonialism, and racism. And also, we are now seeing new forms of racism being manifested in many countries, Europe for example, where we thought that this was over."
Two issues, in particular, have stirred controversy as the conference approaches: reparations for slavery and the comparison of Zionism - the worldwide movement leading to the establishment of the nation of Israel - to racism. "I think personally the question of Zionism, as it has been raised, has been exaggerated somewhat, because I don't believe that it will be such a big problem in terms of the conference," Mr. Minty says. "The reparations issue is complicated because obviously when the world sees that reparations are being paid in the case of Germany and other countries - Japan is making arrangements in terms of Korea and so on - then it's understandable that countries put this forward as well as an idea to deal with past injustices of a similar kind."
Mr. Minty says the conference is not expected to propose a monetary settlement regarding reparations.
But he says he believes nations should look at the history of colonialism and slavery and determine what the consequences are today. One consequence, he says, is the division of much of the world into the categories of rich and poor. The South African official says corrective action can be taken to end poverty, illiteracy, and disease.
The United States has expressed strong opposition to addressing Zionism and reparations at the Durban meeting.
Mr. Minty says a single conference will not rid the world of racism. But he says it does offer an opportunity to discuss, negotiate, and promote understanding. "And it's not only governments that can make an impact on this," he says. "They can provide the framework - often they need to provide the legal framework and so on. But it is ultimately up to civil society, to non-governmental organizations, religious institutions, to individual citizens, indeed, to make a reality of getting rid of racism because racist attitudes spring from within individuals."
He says the world cannot have equal human rights if a person's dignity is assaulted simply on the basis of color, religion, or beliefs.