10 Reasons Why the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, Summer, 2001 was Important

The United Nations is the most significant international institution in the world with a core commitment to the promotion of human rights, including antiracism and antidiscrimination. The United Nations' power in promoting human rights has not always been effectively employed, but its record of achievement includes a significant role in the world wide movement against apartheid and the growth in women's global leadership networks. The United Nations is too important - and its potential is too important - to be ignored.

There are several reasons why we all have a vested interest in supporting and participating in the United Nations' World Conference on Racism process (official and nongovernmental events):

1. Education - These events can educate a largely uninformed public about the nature, extent and consequences of racism and discrimination around the world and in the United States. They can also serve as a pulpit from which to remind the world's peoples that race is socially constructed and has no relationship to human worth, potential and capacity. The events can help to counter the denial of racism and the "invisibility" of many of its victims.

2. Mobilization - The events provide an opportunity to mobilize diverse groups affected by racism and discrimination to exchange experiences, information and ideas about racism and how to surmount its manifestations. It can give a shot in the arm to antiracism networks that would benefit from being linked and enabled to collaborate across national boundaries. Activists around the world, especially in Western nations, have tended to rely most heavily on domestic strategies to combat racism and discrimination. They often work in isolation. They would benefit from learning more about complementary international strategies and approaches. Racism is an international phenomenon that requires both national and international responses and remedies.

3. Develop New Strategies to Respond to Emergent Transnational Developments - many critically important emergent issues of relevance to domestic efforts to combat discrimination are international in scope and manifestation - globalization, migration, labor practices, environmental racism, use of internet to propagate hate, etc. The World Conference and antecedent events will provide an important forum for the venting of these issues and promote the visibility of concerns related to racism and discrimination among policymakers involved in transnational institutions and problem-solving.

4. Set Standards of Accountability - Even if the human rights rubric is not enforceable in many nations, it sets a standard by which activists can assess the behaviors of their governments and promote accountability. The World Conference's plan of action could set new benchmarks for compliance with the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and catalyze governmental planning and responses.

5. Reach New and Wide Audiences - This World Conference will be able to capitalize on the internet to convey its messages and outcomes around the world, in ways heretofore largely unheard of. It has the potential reach that must not be measured solely by reference to how many governments attend official meetings or how many ngos are able to travel to South Africa.

6. Avoid Sending the Wrong Messages - In an era where there have been successful world conferences concerned with environment or women's rights, it would send the wrong message to governments and people around the world if nothing significant or useful comes out of an event focused expressly on combating racism and discrimination. The message would be - it is important to be concerned with anything and everything but discrimination due to race, ethnicity, etc.

7. Help South Africa - South Africa will be the venue for the World Conference on Racism. This nation has great symbolic value to people around the world. If the World Conference on Racism is poorly planned and executed, it will give South Africa a "black eye" at a time when it desperately needs to attract foreign investment, tourism, and address pressing needs of its people. The holding of the event in South Africa is also important because it provides an opportunity to disabuse people of the notion that once laws outlawing racism or discrimination are passed, there is no restorative or compensatory work needed to dismantle institutionalized manifestations - policies and practices - that on their face are neutral but which in fact benefit some groups unfairly while disadvantaging others. Indeed, part of the struggle to combat racism's effects in South Africa should/could be a worldwide commitment to "reinvest" in South Africa to undo apartheid's legacy.

8. Promote Linkages Between Anti-Sexism and Anti-Racism Efforts - Women of color are often doubly disadvantaged in the nations of which they are a part, experiencing both "race" and "gender" discrimination. The Beijing World Conference on Women and other events have not fully enough tackled the intersection of race and gender, a task that awaits the World Conference on Racism. If this event addresses this set of issues and succeeds in "mainstreaming" the race issue into UN agencies and efforts concerned with women, it will have two positive effects: (1) it would capitalize on synergies between the antiracism and antisexism movements; and (2) it would lift up the importance of wholistic approaches to address interactive forms of discrimination.

9. Enhance Human Rights Advocacy - The World Conference process can underscore to activists in Western nations the need for them not only to look to the UN to help advance their interests in combating racism, but also the obligation of activists to use their influence and power to affect the policies that western governments promote abroad. There are ongoing efforts that have largely failed to try to create "constituencies" for one or the other type of policy advocacy effort. The World Conference can help to expose western ngos to their obligation and interest in working for themselves and others around the globe to combat racism and discrimination.

10. Promote Consensus Building in the US - In the US, in particular, the World Conference process affords diverse constituencies - women of all races, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others - an opportunity to make common cause and work in coalition. Too often discrete groups such as these fail to capitalize on the power to be realized through collaboration and joined pursuit of common ends. The World Conference process - including preparatory meetings and ngo gatherings - provides a wonderful occasion to bring such groups together to consider how to construct a shared and workable future and explore interdependence.

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SEF - The Southern Education Foundation