One Cheer for the Racism Conference

The bitter grievances that many in the poor nations have against the rich nations produced two explosions last month, one actual and one figurative. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 were as real as death. The quarrels that nearly blew up the United Nations Conference on Racism amounted to a symbolic explosion, in which no one was physically injured. In fact, The Economist thought this meeting at times descended into farce.

The conference was held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8. It lurched to its conclusion with the approval of a declaration that was lost from sight when the terrorists struck three days later.


It would be a pity, though, if the conference were to be forgotten permanently, for its topic remains of front-rank importance. Racism maintains, usually with pseudo-scientific pretensions, that different groups of human beings have certain human qualities or characteristics, desirable or undesirable, that are genetically, not just culturally, determined. Everywhere around the world this claim is used, openly or covertly, to justify discrimination against ethnic groups that are considered racially inferior.

The conference aimed to indicate directions that an international campaign against racism should take. It did not succeed to any degree, but even its near failure had something instructive to say about the tension between North and South, about the division between the Arab and African nations on the one hand and the European and North American nations on the other.

Mary Robinson, a past president of Ireland who is now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was the chief organizer of the conference, and its statistics were certainly impressive. It attracted about 18,000 peopledelegates from 163 countries, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and more than a thousand journalists.

If a conference is to succeed, however, whether it is large or small, its aims must be clear and limited. The Durban gathering was cumbersome in action because, as its overloaded title warned, it had too many issues to consider: The United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Trouble was compounded because the organizers were unable to keep firm control of the agenda. In the preparatory sessions, the Arab nations managed to have early drafts of the conference documents equate Zionism with racism. Some African nations, led by Zimbabwe, insisted that the conference call for compensation for past slavery from former slave-holding nations, along with an apology for slavery as a crime against humanity.

The United States wanted all references to Israel deleted, and it rejected the African formulations. Instead of an apology for slavery and reparations for the descendants of slaves, it proposed an expression of regret together with a pledge to aid African countries. When the final planning session at Geneva did not produce these modifications, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced that he would not himself attend the conference, although it was no secret that he had been looking forward to going. A mid-level U.S. delegation was sent; but on Sept. 3, when it seemed that the final statement would be unacceptable to Washington, the U.S. delegates walked out and promptly flew home.

The secretary may well have had legitimate questions about the conference and its aims. It would have been out of place to equate the movement to establish the state of Israel with racism, even though that establishment has led to decades of cruel discrimination against the Palestinians. An expression of regret for slavery makes more sense than the notion that some people today should apologize for what other people did yesterday. All the same, it was sad that Colin Powell did not go to Durban, for he could have explained the U.S. objections and denounced racism with a rare personal authority.

As it turned out, the conference, under the leadership of the Norwegians, came up with a generalized final document that omitted criticism of Israel. One U.S. delegate, Representative Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, called this document an outrage, because it also omitted criticism of Sudan, where slavery is still practiced.

Future conferences, however, can take up the issues this one left unresolved. There should be such conferences, because Durban showed that when people share a great common task like the elimination of racism they can be at least united enough to talk together.

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