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8 February 2001

WCAR: another chance to start again

Cf. WCC Press Update, Up-01-31, of 7 September 2001
Cf. WCC Press Update, Up-01-30, of 5 September 2001

"It is important to realize the historical importance of this gathering of the victims of racism from around the world. It was an unprecedented moment for humanity," said Marilia Schüller, World Council of Churches (WCC) programme executive for combatting racism, at the closure of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) on Saturday 8 September.

After a week of painstaking debate on texts of a declaration and a programme of action for governments to adopt, there is little hope that anyone will be entirely satisfied. By United Nations' (UN) tradition, the clocks were stopped at midnight on Friday, when the conference was due to end, as the working groups carried on into the next day. But some serious divisions remained.

"What the victims are calling for is powerful. What the governments finally decide to put on paper is relevant for advocacy work in the years ahead. But it will not diminish the commitment of people here. We might be disappointed in the governments, but we will go on," Schüller declared. Recalling Archbishop Desmond Tutu's words that "governments don't always represent their people", "they are proving that here," she said.

Archbishop Tutu had been speaking on behalf of the Ecumenical Caucus at a press conference in Durban on September 5. "In this new millennium, God is saying: 'I am giving us another chance to start again'. It is important for us here in Durban to announce to the world that we are saying: 'Yes we are listening to God'," Tutu had told about 300 media representatives.

A WCC delegation drawn from its member churches, including South Africa's churches, spent the week monitoring the debates and speaking to the government delegates on issues important to the WCC constituency.

Dalits' struggle
Even before the conference, the recognition of the Dalit struggle in India was a controversial issue. The Indian government tried to keep it off the agenda, and continued its efforts to do so in Durban, focusing on a particular paragraph (73) that refers to discrimination on the basis of work and descent - the compromise terminology used to avoid the word "caste", to which the Indian government objects.

"I am happy about the overwhelming support extended by the international community to the Dalits during both the intergovernmental meeting and the non-governmental organizations (NGO) Forum which preceded it," said Rev. Yesudoss Moses of the Dalit Concerns desk of the National Council of Churches of India and a member of the WCC delegation. "The visibility of Dalits at the WCAR will no doubt double the confidence of Dalits in their struggle against caste-discrimination."

Women: an intersectional approach
WCC delegation members were also active in the Women's Caucus at the NGO Forum and during the intergovernmental meeting. The caucus had been formed at the first preparatory meeting for the WCAR, and had focussed their work on an intersectional approach to racism, racial discrimination and other categories of marginalization such as sex, gender language, religion, sexual orientation, caste, HIV/AIDS, disability, and refugees or migrants. Attempts by some governments to delete paragraphs on intersectionality caused dismay among NGOs.

By far the most controversial and prominent issue, both during the NGO Forum and the intergovernmental conference, was that of Palestine. Wording in documents from the NGO Forum and in the governments' draft texts caused ongoing controversy, and resulted in the withdrawal of the US and Israeli governments.

In New York, the Rev. Dr Robert W. Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA said, "The United States decision to withdraw its delegation... prejudges the conference's ultimate declaration... The US government made its point, but at an unfortunately heavy cost... In walking out, the United States forfeited a critically important opportunity to address with courage the legacy, tenacity and toll of racism."

Speaking of the US departure, WCC delegation leader Bishop Mvumelwano Dandala, president of the South African Council of Churches, said, "My despair is that a nation that celebrates democracy like the USA finds it difficult to pursue vigorous dialogue in a situation where it finds itself in a minority. This is a terrible message to young democracies who have ideals of replacing war with dialogue".

The WCC delegation was aware that certain references to Israel in the NGO Forum document were outside the WCC's policy framework, and therefore unacceptable to the Council. Nevertheless, in order to remain faithful to the process of working with such a wide spectrum of the victims of racism, the delegation affirmed the process which led to the NGO document: "The WCC has always worked to listen to the voices of the powerless and victims of oppression," Schüller explained. "The document, of over 70 pages, includes issues from all over the world. These issues cannot be rejected. The total document represents a significant voice of those who are rarely heard," she said.

"During the NGO Forum," declared the WCC delegation in a statement issued on Friday, September 7, "in keeping with WCC policy, the WCC delegation supported the right of self-determination for Palestinians, the right to return and the establishment of a Palestinian state. It also affirmed the right of the State of Israel to exist, and condemned anti-Semitism. There are some statements in the NGO Forum document which are outside the WCC's policy framework, and which the WCC cannot support, such as: equating Zionism with racism, describing Israel as an apartheid state, and the call for a general boycott of Israeli goods."

Reparations for slavery and colonialism
The Ecumenical Caucus, of which the WCC delegation was part, addressed another major conference issue, that of reparations. It called for churches and governments to acknowledge that they have benefitted from the exploitation of Africans and African descendants, Asians and Asian descendants and Indigenous Peoples through slavery and colonialism. "We are clear that the trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and trans-Saharan slave trades, and all forms of slavery, constitute crimes against humanity," said the Caucus statement.

Indigenous rights
Indigenous representatives came to the Durban conference calling on governments to remove any expressions that limit Indigenous rights to their land and territorial domains from the governments' draft declaration. But they were confronted with a clause in the draft text (27) that even questioned the term "Indigenous Peoples". This was already a debate at the time of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. The Durban draft proposed that the use of the words "Indigenous Peoples" should not prejudice the outcome of ongoing international negotiations on other texts, particularly the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, still being negotiated within ECOSOC in the UN.

Indigenous representatives in Durban regarded the wording of clause 27 as a tremendous setback. "Indigenous Peoples are being told by the UN that, unlike any other individual, group or people in the world, our status and fundamental human rights are not inherent, inalienable and universal, but rather to be derived from negotiations subject to the prejudice and self-interest of UN States," said Lucy Mulenkei, a member of the WCC delegation. Speaking to the government plenary on behalf of the Indigenous Caucus, "If the declaration contains any language which derogates the rights of Indigenous Peoples as peoples in international law, then the UN will be guilty of practising and perpetuating discrimination within its own processes," she said.

Working ecumenically
Throughout the Durban conference, the WCC delegation joined similar delegations from other churches and related agencies in an Ecumenical Caucus. It made a joint statement in which it called on all churches to "acknowledge our complicity with, and participation in, the perpetuation of racism, slavery and colonialism, or we are not credible". The caucus saw such acknowledgements as "critical in leading to necessary acts of apology, confession, repentance and reconciliation, of healing and wholeness".

A highlight for the WCC delegation was an ecumenical service, attended by most Durban church leaders, followed by a candlelight march to the City Hall and a short service of commitment to the struggle against racism held outside the building. "You don't know how much it means to us that the WCC has come to be with us at this time," Anglican Bishop Reuben Philip explained. In response, Schüller said she felt that the close ties between the WCC and the churches of South Africa, so strong during the apartheid era, had been rekindled by the ecumenical commitment at the WCAR.

"The presence of the WCC at this conference was a powerful reminder of the power and relevance of the Incarnation; God's presence in the pain and suffering of the world," Bishop Dandala declared.

"Many continue to find hope in life as they are reminded that God does not shun the difficult and confusing contradictions of human experience. This conference was no different," he said. "This conference has shown clearly that the way ahead for the world in this century will not be forged by governments alone, but by ordinary women, men and youth. The challenge for the church is to learn how it will walk this journey."

The WCC submission to the WCAR is available on both the WCAR and the WCC websites

Photos of the Conference are available on the WCC website

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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.