Whither the World Conference Against Racism

Dakar- Senegal (PANA) -- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, is at pains convincing the world that the World Conference Against Racism "will achieve its mandate", despite the withdrawal of the US and Israeli delegations from the Durban parley.
"The goal of this conference", she told newsmen Wednesday, "is to ensure that every country taking part reaches an agreement on how to overcome it (racism).
" Already, the absence of the US and Israel (who will not recognise conference's final declaration) make that goal only partially unattainable, however laudable it might sound.
In reality, if she could keep the delegates talking to the official end of the conference, it would be just about good enough, considering that the 15 EU countries have threatened to quit if Africans and Arabs do not pipe down on their demands.
Infuriated, South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday charged that Europeans were "behaving as masters" in the conference, recalling with regrets that "during the days of apartheid, Europeans persistently blocked any discussion of it at the UN".
Under such threats, counter-threats and blackmail, more and more observers are of the view that, the final declaration, if arrived at, is unlikely to go beyond the good intentions expressed at the end of the past two world conferences against racism.
If it comes to that, the fault can neither be that of the host country nor of the organiser, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Officially the US and Israeli delegations left the conference in protest against demands by Africans for an apology and possible compensation for the "sins" of slavery and against Arabs' desire to equate Zionism to racism.
Their action, however, shows how far away, unwilling and probably incapable the world is still from saying "NO" to racism and discrimination.
And how far some countries of the world would go to impose their way of thinking and their cultures or, conversely, to discard the cultures and values of others shown by the number of conflicts around the globe.
The hard lessons which victims of slavery, colonialism and discrimination might draw from any failure in Durban are two:- that the UN is yet unfit, and its members unwilling to address the issue of racism; and that outright colonialism and slavery, having served to build empires, could be resorted to at the next propitious point in human history.
The methods might change from discrimination based on race, to discrimination based on regions and its base expanded to include discrimination based on economics, on culture and, of course, on knowledge.
Some already fear that if Durban fails, more and more voices from the developing countries against some practices of the World Bank and IMF, for example, might soon crystallise into charges of covert discrimination.
Many developing countries cannot fail to see a link between the US decision to quit Durban and its vacant seat in UNESCO and draw conclusions on how America views issues of interest to the Third World.
That would usher in another era of endless debates based purely on differences of perception which dominated relations between nations of the North and those of the South in the early 1980s.
Such misinterpretations focus international fora on the wrong issues.
For example, the impression that is left by the boycott in Durban, is that the US and Israel are either the only countries in the world where there is racism and discrimination or that they are defenders of the evil.
This is definitely not true.
Be it in Havana, Cuba; Frankfurt, Germany; Brixton, UK; Cartagena, Colombia; El Ejido, Spain; Khartoum, Sudan; Nouakchott, Mauritania; Jerusalem, West Bank, Israel; or in Durban, South Africa, race deeply affects societies, right across the globe.
Trafficking in children in West Africa or the persistence of caste societies in Asia point to the basis of slavery as not being altogether racist.
These are global issues that need to be addressed, not on sentimental grounds, but with the serenity commensurate with their potential to cause crises.
But the world cannot genuinely begin the fight against the practices without obtaining an official apology from its perpetrators.
The issue of reparations comes only in second place because it could prove to be equally difficult to resolve even after slavery and colonialism have been recognised as crimes against humanity.
Debate on such issues as who would claim the reparation, the former slaves or African countries and, how Africa could in turn pay for the educational fallout of colonialism, could prove intractably long.
It is obvious that a few words of apology cannot, by themselves heal the deep wounds of the hideous slave trade.
But, to many Africans, such words could translate an inner and honest commitment by the colonial powers not to allow it repeat itself.
They would restate a global commitment to fight against slavery, sexual discrimination, racial prejudices and child trafficking wherever it is practised.
For the US, which has been against ethnic cleansing, to be persistently absent from conferences against racism puts a big question mark on whether the world is yet ready to take that commitment.
What is worse, it gives a tacit go-ahead to many countries that feel strong enough to win the racial race.

05 september 2001 12:29:00

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