United Nations World Conference Against Racism: Disparate Beacon for an Emerging New Humanity Under Contest by Racist Detractors


In Durban, South Africa a large number countries and countless non-governmental organizations (NGOs) converged between August 31 and September 8 to examine how racism, xenophobia, and other related intolerances deny people their human rights and what action plans could be formulated to reverse or minimize their negative effects. This article hopes to place what happened at Durban in a globalization frame of reference.

The discussion in Durban is being hailed as the mark of a new emerging humanity, but it has been placed “on hold.”  We intend to make a few overarching points about the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (UNWCAR), what preceded it, what happened at the conference, how the victory is being held hostage, and what lies ahead, particularly on the issues of declaring the Transatlantic Slave Trade a crime against humanity and hoisting the demand for reparations for African people to an international level.
First, however, this writer must stop and call forth tribute to the soldiers that have struggled and died for the demand of reparations, those among the ancestor ranks Callie House, Queen Mother Moore, Queen Mama Charchee McIntyre and Irving Davis; those in our elder ranks, like Baba Imari Obadele, Baba Kanlongi Olusegun; and those in the leadership of our struggle, like Dorothy Lewis and Sister Adjoa Ayietoro — and all those yet unborn. The righteous struggle for justice will continue until full realization.  Here the point is made is that there is a peoples’ historical aspect of the conference that provided its grounding.  The most progressive (pan) African forces went to Durban lobbying for declaration that (a) the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Colonization was a crime against humanity; (b) Racism, and thus the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Colonization, has an economic basis then and now; and Reparations are due.  The document adopted at the conference fairly well establishes these basic points, to various extents. However, it has been held hostage by the United Nations Secretariat, for a multiplicity of reasons that we hope to explore.


The UNWCAR held in Durban was in fact the last of three world conferences on racism, all three of which (1978, 1983, and 2001) were boycotted by the US.  What was new this time was: (a) the center of gravity for the entire pre-conference process was determined by the groundswell of civil society (NGO) involvement; (b) this involvement represented the long struggles of oppressed peoples, and Durban represented a world stage for their affirmation; (c) whereas the two previous conferences were held in Geneva, this one occurred on the continent of Africa, and with it came the social forces on the ground, where thousands participated in marches calling for land, reparations, and self determination.

The story about Durban that is not being told, is that it represented the playing out of the worldwide struggle between imperialism and anti-imperialism.  The forces were, for the most part, symmetrically aligned: oppressors against oppressed, land controllers against the landless, rich against poor. While other countries might display any one of these issues more sharply than the United States, it is the US that best represents the complexities of all the social justice issues. It is thus by looking at the WCAR in terms of US involvement that we can best understand the significance of Durban.  From the beginning the US government denied the importance of the conference and did everything in classic form to undermine it.  It began by stating that the conference was unnecessary.  When this was defeated, it said that only governments should participate. This was also defeated.  Then it attempted to influence two continental preparatory meetings (the American PrepCom shorthand for Preparatory Meeting in Chile and the African PrepCom in Senegal).  Defeated here once again, they then moved — without success — to dominate and determine the agenda.  Their final ploy was, “if you don’t play by my rules and wishes, I will walk out and you will have achieved nothing.”  This also failed, as the conference proceeded despite US duplicity.


The attendance of thousands of people representing civil society was phenomenal in and of itself; it represented countless struggles to acquire and manage human and material resources to get to Durban. No less impressive were the hundreds of workshops, panel discussions, theatre, cultural events, plus events removed from the official venue of the conference. The Dalits, the Roma (Gypsies), Indigenous peoples, Africans (from all over the globe) …all oppressed groups found commonality and exchanged vows of solidarity for continued struggle that would encourage a new vision of humanity. They were responsible for pushing the governments to adopt the Final Declaration of the UN World Conference Against Racism, which included the following statement on Slavery:
“We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of the their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and Indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences…” 

Regarding Remedies and Program of Action:
“The World Conference acknowledges and profoundly regrets the massive human sufferings and the tragic plight of millions of men, women and children caused by slavery, slave trade, trans-Atlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide and calls upon the states concerned to honor the memory of the victims of past tragedies and affirms that wherever and whenever these occurred they must be condemned and their reoccurrence prevented.  The World Conference regrets that these practices and structures, political, socioeconomic and cultural, have led to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.  The World Conference recognizes that these historical injustices have undeniably contributed to the poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion, economic disparities, instability and insecurity that affect many people in different parts of the world, in particular in developing countries.  The World 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 in the following areas: debt relief, poverty eradication, building or strengthening democratic institutions, promotion of foreign direct investments, market access…”  (adopted in Durban, South Africa, 8 September 2001).

US Grabs the Throat of the Conference’s VoiceRoger Wareham, International Secretary-General of the International Association Against Torture (IAAT) and the December 12th Movement, decries, “WHY THERE IS STILL NO DURBAN DECLARATION.”  The problem is that the UN Secretariat has violated its original mandate to the WCAR’s President (South African Foreign Minister Dlamini-Zuma) to finalize the document.  The violation consists in the Secretariat’s refusal to include in the Program of Action three key paragraphs which are indisputably action-oriented. They relate to condemnation of and apologies for slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide, and they call for “concerned States… to take appropriate remedial and other measures to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of those practices.”  The Secretariat wants to place these paragraphs (97, 99 and 100) in the Declaration where they would have no practical follow-up effect.


The African Group, however, in Wareham’s words, “has refused to accept the illegal document proposed by the Secretariat and has told High Commissioner Mary Robinson that the three paragraphs must be included in the Program of Action. As this is written, everyone is waiting to see what the Secretariat will now do. Will it act as the Secretarial body of all the member states and follow the mandate of the entire Conference, or will it function as the private secretary of the Western group?”

Those of us who attended the conference know what we experienced and know what took place: a reaffirmation of humanity and a cold defeat of world imperialism.  We thought we were on our way to a decisive victory.  Earlier UN steps against US influence, including removal of the US from the Human Rights Commission and from the international body monitoring the Drug Trade, encouraged us in this belief.  The Durban Conference seemed to confirm this trend of marginalization of the world’s superpower. In an effort to reverse what happened in Durban, however, the US is now attempting to silence the voices that were heard there and to re-establish the globalization agenda, which does not include reparations.

But the course of history is irreversible.  Thus, many question the 9/11 incident as an act of complicity, for researchers have found that the US intelligence community knew about the attack to significant degrees. The premise is that after being defeated so soundly on the international stage of public opinion, the US had to re-establish its authority in the only way it could, which is through military might. But it needed a justification. Conveniently, the gains of WCAR were removed from the radar screen. Of course, many would call this ridiculous.  But what can be expected from a country that committed genocide against the indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, dropped an atomic bomb, and, knowing about the pending attack on Pearl Harbor and, and, and… (see the current work of Michael Ruppert).

The international defeat of the US government is the hallmark of the conference because as America represents the West, it represents international capitalism; if America is undefeated, so is imperialism. This must be placed in context. The US suffered a defeat at the World Conference in addition to being removed from the Human Rights Commission and the international body to set policy on drugs. The way in which the World Bank, the IMF and the US are suffering major opposition from oppressed peoples throughout the world is a strong denunciation of their grand schemes of “structural adjustment.”  

Beyond Durban 

The struggle continues over the question of ownership: profits for corporations or communal development for people. WCAR represented what oppressed people can accomplish against all odds if they stay united. Post-Durban shows us that the oppressors will stop at nothing to halt this new emerging humanity.  The next stage is up to you. As Wareham recounts, the UN Secretariat, functioning as private secretary of the Western European and Others Group [WEO, which includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand], has refused to place in the Durban Program of Action three essential action-oriented paragraphs. The Secretariat is acting arbitrarily, but it is not doing so in a vacuum. It is the WEO Group which objects to these paragraphs and which, although the WCAR has ended, continues its efforts to snatch victory from defeat.

Phone calls, e-mails and faxes should be made/sent to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights demanding the immediate release of the report.  So encourages Wareham, with support from this writer and N’COBRA. Specifically we are asking that you request that the three paragraphs in question (97, 99, 100) be placed in the Program of Action. Contact should be made with the G-77 countries to encourage them to complete consideration of the proposed resolution. The Geneva office of the High Commissioner is: phone (41) 22 917-9000, fax  917-9011, e-mail: webadmin.hchr@unog.ch. The New York City office is:  phone 212-963-5930, fax 963-4097. For further information contact Onaje Mu’id, NIC, P.O.Box 8003, Englewood, NJ 07631.

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