Dilution in Durban

Print edition : September 15, 2001

After hectic deliberations that went beyond the schedule, the World Conference Against Racism produces a document that satisfies nobody.

THE World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, or the WCAR, went into extra time on September 7 and continued for an unscheduled ninth day of deliberations. Two difficult issues held up the adoption of the two major documents before the conference: the Draft Declaration and the Draft Programme of Action. There were irreconcilable differences over several formulations on the situation in Palestine and Israel and on the issue of slavery, slave trade and colonialism.

Inside the Durban International Conference Centre, a session of the World Conference Against Racism in progress.-THEMBA HADEBE/AP

Nothing could have summed up the mood of the conference then better than these observations - of the Chair of the Main Committee, reminding delegates that time was of the essence ("we have just 25 minutes left") in response to interventions from Pakistan and Syria on the compromise formulation on the situation in West Asia, and of the president of the conference and South Africa's Foreign Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, agreeing for further discussions ("provided we find the required interpreters, because, only by allowing a full discussion will be able to end the conference in a dignified way").

During the deliberations, the African group demanded that slavery, slave trade and colonialism should be characterised as crimes against humanity, for which countries that practised and profited from these should apologise and pay reparations. The original draft only spoke of a need to acknowledge the grave suffering caused by these practices.

Although the United States and Israel withdrew from the conference, objecting to what they saw as the hate language used against Israel and the comparisons made between Zionism and racism, other countries such as the members of the European Union (E.U.), which broadly shared such outrage, did not withdraw. Instead, they strove to achieve a compromise - in essence, for an acceptable language on these two issues.

At every briefing during the conference, mediapersons were only told of the efforts that were still on to find such acceptable language. For instance, even as it was acknowledged that deeply entrenched historical antagonisms between political Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are at the root of the conflict in West Asia, the problem was one of finding expressions of this truth that were acceptable to all. It was not surprising then that the compromise sought was essentially a semantic one and related not to the intractable hostilities in West Asia but to the issues of slavery, slave trade and colonialism as they impacted on the African continent. The attempt was to find appropriate words and expressions to replace some of the harsher formulations in the draft documents. The E.U. countries apparently agreed that slavery, slave trade and colonialism did constitute crimes against humanity, but they did so only after securing guarantees, supported by legal opinion, that such admission would not open the doors to litigious action against the erstwhile colonial states and states that actively engaged in slavery and slave trade. Similarly, instead of the reparations demanded by the African group, there are to be remedial measures; there is no debt cancellation, but debt relief; and so on.

On issues relating to Palestine and Israel, the proposed changes, which constituted seven paragraphs in the Draft Declaration and a mere three paragraphs in the Draft Programme of Action, did not explicitly condemn Israel, let alone equate Zionism with racism. The formulation recognising the right of refugees to return voluntarily to their homes and properties was a patently watered-down version of Paragraph 41 of the Draft Programme of Action; it modified the original expression "Palestinian refugees" to just "refugees". Paragraph 6 of this version was particularly hollow and hypocritical, in the context of the horrible goings on in Palestine and other occupied areas. It said: "We call for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all peoples shall co-exist to enjoy equality, justice and internationally recognised human rights, and security."

Not surprisingly, the West Asian group of countries as well as Pakistan firmly opposed the formulations, which did not explicitly condemn Israel, while any further changes that would accommodate these views were opposed by the E.U. countries. The conference was poised on a knife-edge.

In the event, the interpreters, whose contract had expired, were located and the conference ended with a compromise that satisfied nobody. While the Final Declaration acknowledged that slavery and slave trade (but not colonialism) were crimes against humanity, the expected "apology" from those who had profited from these practices finally became an expression of "profound regret", with the verbal changes in respect of reparations remaining.

On the issue of Palestine and Israel, the attempts by the West Asian group led by Syria to introduce a new formulation describing foreign (Israeli) occupation of (Palestinian) territory as tantamount to racism and effectively declaring Israel as a racist state were thwarted by an alliance of Western and Latin American countries by taking recourse to the vote.

An anti-racism march in Durban on September 1.-KAREL PRINSLOO/AP

After more than eight days of deliberations, which in turn were preceded by meetings of preparatory committees and working groups, regional conferences and seminars that had been held over a period of more than two years at venues all over the world, the conference could produce only some sort of a verbal agreement. At one point the dispute extended even to orthography, that is, whether the word Holocaust should be spelt with a capital 'H' or a lower case 'h'.

This is hardly surprising, given the length and verbosity and the unrealistic scope of the draft documents that were born out of an attempt to include everything for everyone and satisfy all lobbies. In Durban, the drafts, which were approved on August 20 and 22 at the preparatory committee meetings in Geneva, were put through another process of reconciliation so that they reflected a consensus, if any, among the delegates. This task could be completed only well after the eleventh hour. The clocks at the venue were stopped at midnight to imply that the documents were at least notionally adopted on the last day of deliberations.

Some idea of the difficulties involved can be had from the fact that at the beginning of the conference the majority of the paragraphs in both the documents bore at the end the self-explanatory description "ongoing" within brackets. Many of these paragraphs were themselves within brackets, indicating the existence of deep divisions over the content of the documents. The text of these documents on the WCAR website was marked by errors, with the paragraphs not even consecutively numbered. Paragraph 73 of the Draft Declaration (in Section III) dealing with "Measures of Prevention, Education and Protection aimed at the Eradication of Racism", which urged states to prohibit and redress discrimination on the basis of work and descent, did not appear in the web version. It was described as a missing paragraph in a footnote to a version of the document that this correspondent secured from a WCAR official just to copy and return.

This paragraph contained one of the central issues that was sought to be raised in Durban. Eloquent and persuasive Dalit lobbies sought the retention of this paragraph in its existing form, with two new paragraphs, 73-A and 73-B. Paragraph 73-A calls upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights "to undertake an in-depth study on the question of discrimination on the basis of work and descent in cooperation with the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination", and Paragraph 73-B calls upon the governments concerned "to undertake public awareness raising and educational initiatives in order to promote positive changes in attitudes towards and within communities discriminated against on the basis of work and descent". Since no discussion was possible on Paragraph 73, the issue fell away, according to an Indian official. However, according to Paul Dinakar, one of the Dalit activists from India, the paragraph, like all other similar paragraphs described as ongoing, will be included in an annexure to the Declaration and the Programme of Action to be forwarded to the U.N. General Assembly. The two documents have about 30 paragraphs each bearing this description. A U.N. legal adviser told the delegates on September 8 that the conference could not adopt any of the bracketed paragraphs.

To say that the deliberations of the past two weeks, which also saw a two-day Youth Conference and a five-day NGO Forum that discussed more or less the same issues, were less than impressive is not to underplay the immediacy and importance of the issues of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

It was at the seemingly less formal structures of the Youth Conference and the NGO Forum that Dalit activists were initially able to highlight the evils of caste and untouchability in South Asia and in other parts of the world. But eventually they made their voices heard even within the environs of the WCAR. The issues of work- and descent-related discrimination in India are no more the concern of only those Indians, Dalit and non-Dalit, outraged by these evils; there is a whole international network that will take them further into and along paths which one cannot even envisage. Durban 2001 thus became both an angry and a festive free-for-all in terms of exchange of ideas. There were causes rational and bizarre, and people whose ideas seemed even more outlandish than their attires and headgears, the inescapable buttons and T-shirts and beads and trinkets, the banners and the posters. There were even the hustlers and fly-by-night operators and shady pleasure spots in the vicinity of the splendiferous conference centre and the adjacent Durban Exhibition Centre.

As is so often the case with the media at such high-profile international gatherings, in particular the visual and electronic media, the form and style were definitely more catchy than the bureaucratic hair-splitting over brackets within brackets, obscuring the harsh fact that these wrangles were about matters of life and death to an overwhelming majority of the peoples of the world, all victims of the evils the conference had set out to fight.

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