An Enabling Step:
Why The World Conference Against Racism Was Important

Lynn Huntley

The tragic events that have recently beset our country-evil acts of terrorism by desperate human beings-should remind us all of the value of international conferences such as the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa only a few weeks ago. Some people have criticized this event as just another "talkshop." However, the alternative to talking about shared problems and searching for common ground in our divided world is unthinkable.

Now more than ever we need more rather than fewer such international meetings, if diverse peoples are to resolve their differences peaceably and enhance understanding. While it is not always easy to assess the impact of broad global gatherings at which civil society institutions and representatives of government talk with and to each other, value reposes in the conversation and the search for common ground.

The governments of the United States and Israel withdrew from the World Conference because they disapproved of positions and provisions being advanced by Palestinians and their supporters for inclusion in the declaration and plan of action that the World Conference was to issue. The United States government also said that it would not participate in the World Conference because of calls for "reparations" for peoples and nations victimized by slavery or colonial rule. To many, the withdrawal by the United States from the World Conference seemed a "convenient" way to deflect the spotlight away from serious human rights problems at home.

The World Conference was about far more than Israel and Palestinians or reparations, important though these concerns are. The World Conference was about the Roma (so-called "gypsies") and the discrimination and harassment they face wherever they are found. It was about the Dalits (so-called "untouchables") who are victimized by caste in ways that debase the human spirit. It was about Afro Brazilians, who comprise half of their nation's population and constitute less than 2% of those able to attend college. It was about the "comfort women" of Korea, who still seek redress for their cruel exploitation, and other women of Asian origin victimized by Euro sex tourism. It was about aboriginal and indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods are endangered. It was about the racialized inequality within the United States and between developed and developing nations.

The World Conference was not, as some media have suggested, just a group of malcontents engaged in special pleading. It was about sophisticated and thoughtful people harmed by discrimination, and their allies, searching for ways to combat racism and discrimination, gross violations of human rights.

Non governmental organizations were in Durban in great abundance to lobby their governments, listen to the debate, learn, share and forge bonds of understanding. They asked tough questions about how international institutions such as the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank use public resources to combat social exclusion of unpopular groups. They attended sessions at which the role of the religious community in combating poverty among victims of discrimination was mined. They listened to scholarly papers about the causes and consequences of discrimination and learned about racism's impact on national productivity and development. They pressed the media to explain inadequate or biased coverage of discrimination, use of stereotyped images and lack of diversity.

The value of the World Conference cannot be measured simply by what transpired in Durban. The process of preparation for the World Conference-national and regional preparatory conferences, meetings, large and small, among groups that need to know each other, research, writing, advocacy, learning, sharing-all of these things occurred as people, institutions and governments prepared to come to Durban. They knit people, communities, groups and nations together in positive ways.

The United States did not have a significant preparatory process. Neither the Clinton nor Bush Administrations showed particular interest in bringing together groups affected by discrimination to develop new responses to this problem at home or abroad. Only a few small, invitation-only meetings were held by a White House Task Force. The media paid little attention to any of this, despite best efforts by non governmental organizations to promote coverage.

But in other parts of the globe, governments took the preparatory process more seriously. Brazil, for example, had three regional conferences and a national conference in preparation for the World Conference. This promoted coalition and consensus building in their country and provided a means by which citizens could ask questions of and hold government accountable. While Brazil has a long way to go before it mounts an adequate response to racism against people of African descent or appearance or indigenous peoples, it took an important step forward and toward grappling with these issues. The regional conference of the Americas, which brought nongovernmental organizations from Canada, the United States and Latin America together, yielded a positive blueprint for future cooperation and priority setting. In sum, the value of the World Conference can be apprehended only through looking at the impact of the process in various countries and regions of the world.

Many of the nongovernmental organizations in Durban had never participated in an international event before. But no one who was there will ever again assert that the agenda to combat racism is only local or national. In our globally interdependent and interconnected world, forces within and outside of nations affect efforts to reduce racism and inequality. World Conference participants learned that something more than recourse to domestic courts or policymaking bodies or even one's fellow countrymen and women is needed. Participants learned about the importance of being informed about and weighing in on foreign policy, trade and aid policymaking. They learned that multinational corporations and multilateral institutions are also part of the solution to the problem of racism and must be held accountable.

A new generation of heretofore domestically oriented organizations and individuals now know that to combat racism in the global era, they must have a dual agenda. They must work for themselves at home and for others abroad to combat synergistically linked forms of discrimination and inequality.

The World Conference was thus an "enabling step." It has helped to create a new transnational movement of people and institutions committed to working together to move beyond racism and toward a world where human rights values prevail.

The World Conference was the first global conference in the new millennium. As the United States moves into its global war against terrorism, let us hope that the World Conference, whose message and values have such salience in present circumstances, will not be the last.

Lynn Huntley is president-elect of the Southern Education Foundation, a public charity based in Atlanta, Georgia. <>


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SEF - The Southern Education Foundation