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UN Conference on Racism: a Compromise - 2001-09-16


The recent U.N. World Conference Against Racism called for a renewed effort in the fight against racism, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance. Many welcomed the summit as a sign of a global consensus against discrimination, but others complained it did not go far enough.

The final document of the U.N. conference on racism is a compromise among various racial and ethnic groups from around the world. It is not legally binding on the 160 states that sent delegates.

Many Africans and African-Americans were disappointed by the declaration's statements on colonialism, slavery, and reparations. The text does not call for an explicit apology from the West for the slave trade, but declares that current-day slavery and slave trading are crimes against humanity. Legal specialists say an apology could make the governments of the European Union and the United States vulnerable to lawsuits by the descendents of former slaves. The final document encourages donors to give aid to the developing world, but it does not promise Africa reparations for slavery or colonialism.

The head of the European Commission delegation, Odile Quintin, told the South African Press Agency that an apology would go against the EU guiding philosophy. She said it is based on mutual respect, solidarity, human rights and the future, not on problems of the past. She said the European Union is concerned about current cases of racial discrimination.

The summit declaration also urges support for a number of disenfranchised groups. It asks governments to protect the rights of minorities, migrants, refugees, and indigenous peoples. It presses governments to root out racial discrimination in courts, police services, and other state institutions.

Supporters say the summit's final text has implications that favor the long-range advancement of human rights. Steven Friedman is the director of the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Morally, you have to look at a conference like this, not as some kind of deliberative body where people take weighty decisions and implement them, but rather as part of a process," he said. "[It's also a process where] - because of improvements in global communications, moral issues that had not been [considered before are now] on the table. [If] Europeans apologize for slavery, does it mean the world will be a better place for Africans tomorrow morning? No. Does it mean that over time there is likely to be more sensitivity to the African position? Quite possibly. Is it possible to imagine a scenario where America would not pay reparations, but might (consider) speeding up trade links with Africa? That is a possibility, yes."

The final text recommends beefing up the main U.N. monitoring body on racism - the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The director of the London-based Minority Rights Group, International, Mark Lattimer, says the U.N. committee conducts hearings and looks into racial tensions in various countries. "There is hope the committee can look at more countries' situations, consider more individual cases in those countries, [and I hope] the ability of the committee to act urgently will be improved...and will [be able to] and counteract some of the trends in racism around the world," he said.

Some conference participants thought too much time was spent discussing the Middle East. The final draft expresses concern over the plight of the Palestinian people.

But National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice said the conference had wasted time on matters not related to the meeting and defended the U.S. decision to walk out when the Arab delegations backed measures linking Zionism with racism. Secretary of State Colin Powell said language used against Israel was "hateful."

Meanwhile, Canadian delegate Paul Heinbecker said Canada disassociated itself from any of the text's language on the Middle East.

Mr. Lattimer says the Durban document does not offer enough protection to the world's indigenous peoples. "It said nothing in the document which talked about [their rights] could be construed as giving them rights under international law" he said. "So there was this paragraph saying [in effect] that as far as indigenous peoples were concerned, this document was just a set of slogans with no legal force before the international community."

Phil Ya Nangoloh of the National Society for Human Rights in Windhoek, Namibia, says many in Africa, including the continent's indigenous peoples like the San, or Bushmen of southern Africa, deserve reparations from African governments. He explains how he would determine who would receive reparations - a topic that was not addressed by the Durban summit's final document. "One relative point is memory, the other is physical existence," he said. "Dead human beings ain't got no rights; but those who are still alive and who remember [from historical memory or written history] that they were wronged - whether they were wronged by Arabs or Europeans or Africans - by other Africans - reparations have to be made. It may open a Pandora's box, but we can not play double standards or moralities. We either do it, or shut up."

Others say the conference debates ignored parties who bear responsibility for Africa's underdevelopment.

Jan Van Eck is a conflict resolution specialist with the University of Pretoria in South Africa. "During the Cold War - which no one talks about - both Western countries and [Eastern ones like] Russia and China all manipulated African leaders," he said. "Human atrocities were committed by leaders who had been courted to be on [either] side. No one worried about human rights. Bad governance in Africa was allowed to flourish during that time. Those are historical realities."

Mr. Van Eck says he is concerned that the debate will be used to adopt the moral high ground, but not necessarily provide solutions to Africa's problems. "Africa's problem is primarily one of exclusion: you come to power by force or through what is called 'democratic elections' in some countries," he said. "Then once you are in power you exclude everyone against you, and that means people who come from different ethnic groups or regions, or those who speak different languages or belong to different religions. That exclusivity of government in Africa creates most of the conflict you see. You can call it racism, but I call it intolerance because racism is just one example of intolerance. "

Mr. Van Eck says the racism conference will have succeeded for Africa if it encourages donors and governments to work together for the continent's development.

He says the West may want to support a program for Africa's development called the New Africa Initiative, supported by South Africa, Senegal and others. He says it would band together and strengthen countries that exercise good economic and political governance. Human-rights abusers and those involved in corruption would not be able to join the group.

Mr. Van Eck says Western financial support will be needed to guarantee the success of the New Africa Initiative. He says keeping that in mind, Africans should be asking themselves, "What is my objective?" and not "What is my grievance?"

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