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31 August 2001

"We are making history"
WCC delegation at the United Nations World Conference against Racism,
Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-01-29, of 27 August 2001

"The range of issues and the intensity of the debates on racism are a dramatic challenge to the churches world-wide. When we know racism to be a sin, do we give our work against racism the priority it needs?"

This challenging question was asked by Bishop Mvumelwano Dandala, leader of the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation to the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) being held in Durban, South Africa.

In the run-up to the WCAR, more than 7 000 representatives of hundreds of non-governmental organizations have been meeting in a Non-governmental organizations' (NGO) Forum , 28-31 August. Among them has been a 35-member delegation drawn from WCC member churches. There are also a number of delegations from individual churches and faith communities.

Issues holding centre stage at the NGO Forum include a number of central WCC concerns, including Palestine, Dalits, Indigenous Peoples, women, and people of African descent. There have also been calls for slavery and colonization to be recognized as crimes against humanity. On this issue, the WCC delegation, in a submission prepared for the Conference, said, "impunity for past offenders responsible for massive crimes including slavery, colonization, apartheid, genocide and indentured labour... should be abolished in international and national law".

The WCC delegation contributed to Forum discussions on several issues. It issued a detailed comment on the Palestinian question in which it stressed the need to continue to support efforts towards a negotiated peace in the Middle East. The comment referred to a WCC Central Committee statement of February 2001 which spoke of "a pattern of discrimination, routine humiliation, segregation and exclusion which restricts Palestinian freedom of movement" and "establishes 'cantonization' of the land, so that Palestinian land is separated from one another." The delegation included three Palestinians.

Violation of the human rights of Dalits in India has been another controversial issue and the government of India has consistently blocked its discussion. WCC delegation member Rev. Yesudoss Moses of the Dalit Concerns desk of the National Council of Churches in India said, "[It] has been forcefully argued that the governments' agenda should include caste discrimination, and that governments should introduce mechanisms to deal with it. The NGO Forum has made that clear."

The WCC also hosted workshops on "Racism, Gender and Religion" (co-hosted with the World Young Men's Christian Association) and, with the South African Council of Churches, a panel on "Churches in post-apartheid South Africa". Another workshop looked at "The impact of globalization on people of colour and the role of religion". A number of listening projects were co-sponsored with the American Friends Service Committee, and the Durban-based Diakonia Council of Churches hosted a church service and candlelight march to the City Hall.

Despite their efforts, WCC staff member, Marilia Schüller is disappointed about "how little the voice of the churches has been heard". She attributes this to the fact that "there is so much more our churches could, and should have, done. In a number of round table discussions, NGOs pointed to the historical role of the church in racial oppression. Delegates at a discussion on the plight of Indigenous peoples, for example, suggested that, apart from a written apology, the church should be looking at paying reparations."

Bishop Mvumelwano Dandala for his part said that "In South Africa we feel a sense of excitement that, after our years of struggle against apartheid, the world has chosen to our country to discuss racism worldwide. But we realise that the churches have not been intentional enough in addressing the issues."

On the participation of Indigenous Peoples, WCC staff member for Indigenous issues, Eugenio Poma of Bolivia, said, "Confusion and disorientation resulting from the organization of the NGO Forum diminished the expectations of Indigenous delegates and their hopes to contribute to the outcome of the conference. But in spite of that, they contributed to discussions on topics like land dispossession, self-determination and language genocide."

"Although we don't expect much from the Forum, we will continue to struggle patiently until we fulfil the aspirations we brought to the World Conference," Poma said. He agreed with UN secretary-general Kofi Annan's recommendation to the Forum that any success would depend on what the delegates could achieve in the future rather than during the conference itself.

At the workshop on gender, religion and racism, another WCC delegation member, Rev. Dr Sirirat Pusurinkham from the Presbyterian Church in Thailand, demanded to know what the churches, civil society and the international community were doing to stop the trafficking and prostitution of women and children. "These are children who are suffering! Children as young as nine years old are victims of trafficking." The workshop heard that governments were not willing to crack down on trafficking and prostitution for fear of hurting their tourist industries. In most cases the victims of trafficking are women of colour.

Canada downgraded its delegation to the government conference at the last moment, leading to accusations that it is following in the footsteps of its neighbour, the USA, which has only a low-level representation. WCC delegation member Lyn Headley-Moore, from the Episcopal Church in the USA, said "I am really disappointed, really angry with my government . As a superpower it has a greater responsibility to be here than anyone else. With the history of our country it is so important it should be here."

Having initially committed itself to partnership, the British government has excluded UK NGOs from their official delegation. The UK Churches Commission for Racial Justice and anti-racist and community organizations say that this is to silence voices which would embarrass the British government's relationship with the Americans.

Signs of hope
Reasons for optimism remain. In his address to the NGO Forum, Kofi Annan remarked that NGOs across the spectrum "have discovered that they have more in common than they thought". Schüller notes that "We are making history. It is the first time that representatives of so many oppressed groups have come together in an attempt to build a coalition against racism. Unfortunately, this attempt was hampered by the lack of space and time to dialogue on the issues." But Dalits from India have found solidarity with Palestinians, while Palestinians have linked up with people of African descent, and women of all backgrounds have made common cause in the way racism intersects with discrimination against them.

The biggest hurdle of all is the difficulty NGOs will meet in trying to make their voices heard at the governments' meeting. There has been a great deal of anger and disappointment that, despite the UN call for NGO participation, only 750 NGO representatives will have access to the governments' meeting. Schüller says that "Governments do not want to confront the issues that the NGOs are putting forward."

Photos from the NGO Forum at WCAR

INTOLERANCE: AN EVIL THAT MUST BE ERADICATED: Address to the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance by His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia, moderator of the WCC Central Committee

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.