World Conference Against Racism Should Not Be Dismissed

Center of Concern | Thu, Jan 24, 2002

By Rowena Gono

Was the World Conference Against Racism a success or a failure? The answers depend on who is asked and what their expectations were for conference outcomes. I have yet to read anywhere that the conference was a colossal success but have seen it described as a "colossal waste of time and money." I disagree. For victims of racism the world over, perhaps voicing their concerns through such an international forum for the first time, this conference was no doubt, valuable, notwithstanding squabbles, dramatic developments (such as the U.S. departure) and logistical inconveniences.

The plight of marginalized voices especially came through at special sessions organized to hear testimonials about the toll racism has exacted on the lives of its victims. One such session was the Voices Forum broadcast live on South African television and organized by the International Human Rights Law Group and South Africa Human Rights Commission. Another human rights hearing was organized by the Center for Women's Global Leadership. In both arenas, the audience was at times moved to tears hearing stories about what it means to live in oppression as a Dalit1, Palestinian, aboriginal from Australia, Afro-Brazilian domestic worker, Roma2, or woman facing multiple forms of discrimination.

The world's youth also commanded a strong presence and were given space to dialogue on issues impacting their lives. Several hundred young people from around the world participated in their own summit and produced a youth vision for combating racism.

NGO delegates numbering in the thousands came from various regions of the world with the same goal, to speak out against the scourge of racism. They participated in panels, workshops, protests and cultural events, and connected and formed alliances.


Convened in Durban, South Africa from August 31 - September 8, the UN World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), was the third of such meetings in three decades; for a variety of reasons, some are predicting this may well be the last. As part of an extensive agenda, the Conference challenged governments to establish programs aimed at countering racism through education, promotion of tolerance and respect among the races. It was uniquely different from the two conferences preceding it, held in 1978 and 1983 respectively, because it set out to address more complex forms of discrimination including the economic impact of racism, indigenous rights, criminal justice, multiple forms of discrimination against women, HIV/AIDS, trafficking in humans, armed conflict, slavery's legacy, and more.


The World Conference recognized the legacy of both past and present day exploitations and proposed specific measures for combating them. Statements produced from discussions were integrated into the final conference output: a Declaration and a Program of Action. Much of the controversy surrounding the conference involved the tug-of-war among delegates on what was appropriate language for addressing the very complex issues up for debate. Most noteworthy of the prickly issues were reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the equation of Zionism with racism, and the list of victims of racism and related intolerance. Deliberations on the sensitive issues were difficult and consensus became a scarce commodity, occurring rarely and not without a struggle. This happened at the main conference, but also at the NGO Forum held around this same time, where the crafting of an NGO Declaration and Plan of Action proved equally challenging. Because of strong language on the Israeli-Palestine situation contained in the final NGO document, it was not endorsed by several NGO groups and accepted only with reluctance by Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Secretary-General of the conference.

NGO representatives also lobbied hard to make certain their issues were included into the official conference Declaration and Program of Action. The official document had gone through several drafts during earlier preparatory meetings and the final version was an attempt to incorporate the many proposals put forward by country delegates and various interest groups.

The African and African Descendants caucus achieved a major victory with the inclusion of language in the official conference document that acknowledges slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity. On the issue of compensatory measures and reparations, the conference document recognizes that historical injustices have contributed to poverty, underdevelopment and marginalization of people of color in different parts of the world, and proposes collaboration in the areas of debt relief, poverty eradication, building or strengthening democratic institutions, promotion of foreign direct investment and market access. The document also recognizes that racism manifests itself differently for women and girls and is among factors resulting in multiple forms of discrimination and abuse of their human rights. It thus calls for including a gender perspective in policies, strategies and programs designed to combat racism. The document also references forward-looking enterprises to address poverty issues, including those being proposed by African leaders as part of the New African Initiative and the World Solidarity Fund for the Eradication of Poverty.

The conference devoted a large part of the Program of Action to education and protection measures at the national and international level. Among other things, the program of action encourages countries to implement legislation and other measures to protect migrant workers and trafficked persons, to eliminate disparities in health status that might have resulted from racial discrimination, to address discrimination against refugees, to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and to prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes. This section of the document also urges countries to commit resources to anti-racism education and media campaigns promoting tolerance, and to take or strengthen measures to address root causes, such as poverty, underdevelopment and lack of equal opportunity, that contribute to human trafficking. The final conference Declaration and Program of Action are due to be posted on the web site of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at


The Center of Concern worked collaboratively and was actively engaged in national and international processes leading up to World Conference and was among the 7,000 or so participants converging on Durban. Keeping in line with its commitment to issues of economic justice and human rights in globalization, it collaborated on a statement that was later read in the conference plenary. Center staff joined groups protesting the U.S. government's withdrawal from the conference and submitted a statement to Catholic News Service, elements of which appeared in an issue of National Catholic Reporter and national Catholic diocesan newspapers. Both statements can be found on the Center's web site at


Following the September 11 attacks, random acts of violence against people across the United States perceived as having an affinity with terrorist groups have become a powerful showcase for hate crimes and xenophobic behavior. They also highlight the importance of the work in Durban. A story recently appearing in the New York Times titled, ""September 11 Attack Narrows the Racial Divide,"" was positive on the one hand because it stated that the soul searching and cooperation brought on by the Trade Center attacks have positively affected New York's old racial divisions. However, people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent have now become the targets of this type of profiling, and even less hopeful is the fact that any new-found cooperation and tolerance among New York's racial groups may be a short- lived war-time phenomenon.

Also, the ensuing debate on the sources of resentment and hostility directed toward Americans touches on key issues that comprised the WCAR Conference agenda. Civil society actors at the Conference emphasized the growing gap between the rich and poor in the era of globalization and believe poverty exacerbates intolerance. Thus, bridging the gap between the rich and poor should substantially contribute to managing this phenomenon. That the current economic system upholds the wealth disparity is a premise proclaimed loudly by protesters whose swelling presence at global economic meetings is becoming standard and a strong indication that such trends can no longer be overlooked.


The Conference begins an extensive process and offers guidelines for advancing the struggle against racism. Now the real task involves convincing world governments to act on recommendations for national anti- racism programs, contained in the final documents.

NGOs around the globe are expected to work collaboratively with their governments and pressure them to live up to commitments. Follow-up work, which may be the true determinant of the importance of the work begun in Durban, will be doubly challenging for U.S. NGOs because our government walked out of the conference. Apparently there will be no office in the White House working on implementation of recommendations in the conference Plan of Action, or on issues of racial discrimination and xenophobia. The Interagency Task Force on WCAR shut down soon after the Conference, and a working group on Race and Ethnicity will meet "as needed." The U.S. has been criticized for constantly changing the rules to suit its needs, and the World Conference was no exception. While it opted to withdraw from the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, within a span of two weeks it sought UN validation and multilateral support for its war against terrorism.

Nonetheless, there is hope that the World Conference Against Racism will serve as the catalyst for continuing the dynamic struggle against racism, xenophobia and related intolerance and that ties forged between NGO groups will be the impetus for setting in motion a dynamic movement against global racism. In all respects, NGO leadership is crucial, and the Center will continue its focus on racism.

1. Formerly known as "untouchables", they amount to approximately 240 million people in South Asia and are the lowest caste in their societies.

2. Also referred to as Gypsies, Romas are European ethnic minorities who commonly experience discrimination in employment, education, health care, administrative and other services.