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World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

1 September 2001

Don't leave Durban without commitment to improve the lot of victims, anti-racism delegates told
by Stephen Webb

Delegates to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) would "give comfort to the worst elements in every society" if they leave South Africa next week without agreement.

That was the warning of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in his opening address to the conference on August 31.

Delegations from 153 countries are in Durban, South Africa until September 7 for the conference. There are 2 119 delegations and 2 911 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) represented. Over 16 000 passes have been issued.

The conferenceís objectives are to produce a declaration that recognizes the damage caused by past expressions of racism and that reflects a new global awareness of modern forms of racism and xenophobia. Other objectives are to agree on a strong practical programme of action, and to forge an alliance between governments and civil society that will carry the fight against racism forward.

In preparation for the Durban conference, there have been four regional meetings, five expert meetings and three preparatory committee sessions, plus drafting sessions and events focusing on the theme in every part of the world.

Annan said few people in the world today openly deny that human beings are born with human rights. "But far too many people are still victimized because they belong to a particular group - whether national, ethnic, religious, defined by gender or descent."

In many places, he said, people are maltreated and denied protection on the grounds that they are not citizens but unwanted immigrants.

"In other cases Indigenous peoples and national minorities are oppressed because their culture and self-expression are seen as threats to national unity -- and when they protest, this is taken as proof of their guilt."

Annan said sometimes those problems are in part the legacy of terrible wrongs in the past -- such as the exploitation and extermination of Indigenous peoples by colonial powers, or the treatment of millions of human beings as mere merchandise, to be transported and disposed of by other human beings for commercial gain.

"The further those events recede into the past, the harder it becomes to trace lines of accountability. Yet the effects remain. The pain and anger are still felt. The dead, through their descendants, cry out for justice."

He said, "The sense of continuity with the past is an integral part of each manís or each womanís identity.

"Some historical wrongs are traceable to individuals who are still alive, or corporations that are still in business. They must expect to be held to account. The society they have wronged may forgive them, as part of the process of reconciliation, but they cannot demand forgiveness, as of right."

After saying past wrongs "should not distract us from present evils", Annan said delegates must not leave Durban without agreeing on practical measures which all states should take to fulfil their Millennium Declaration pledge "to take measures to ensure respect for and protection of the human rights of migrants, migrant workers and their families, to eliminate the increasing acts of racism and xenophobia in many societies, and to promote greater harmony and tolerance in all societies".

"It must be reflected in our budgets and development plans, in our laws and institutions -- and, above all, in our school curricula," he said.

Noting that the accusation of racism against any particular individual or group is particularly hurtful, he said that "mutual accusations are not the purpose of this conference. Our main objective must be to improve the lot of the victims.

"Let us admit that all countries have issues of racism and discrimination to address. Rather than pick on any one country or region, let us aim to leave here with a commitment from every country to draw up and implement its own national plan to combat racism, in accordance with general principles that we will have agreed."

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and secretary general of the WCAR, addressed the opening plenary, saying it was never going to be an easy conference: "Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome... It is easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices and biases."

She said that the issues addressed by the conference are among the most sensitive the UN and the international community have to deal with. She asked that delegates "agree on the fundamental aims of the conference and not try to sort out all the problems on the international agenda".

It is clear the modern world needs new strategies to fight racism and intolerance, Robinson affirmed: "To those who say we do not need a world conference on this subject, I say ĎLook around youí. How much misery, inequality, conflict is caused by racism and discrimination?" Success at Durban, she said, should be measured by whether or not the outcome brings effective remedies and relief to the victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Durban would only be a landmark if a substantial text was adopted and given meaningful follow-up.

A breakthrough will be made, she said, if the conference can agree on language that recognizes historic injustices and expresses deep remorse for the crimes of the past.

Robinson said she looks to NGOs and civil society generally to take up the challenge of Durban and form a global alliance with governments to carry the struggle forward.

The president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, also addressed the conference, saying there are many who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white. They expect that something will come out of the conference that will signify a united and sustained global drive to help rid them of the suffering they bear.

"Our common humanity," Mbeki said, "dictates that as we rose against apartheid and racism, so must we combine to defeat the consequences of slavery, colonialism and racism which, to this day, continue to define the lives of billions of people who are brown and black, as lives of hopelessness."

Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of South Africa and president of the World Conference, said it "must issue a clarion call to the rest of the world to end the unspeakable evils of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. Concomitantly, with this call, we must launch a sustained Programme of Action capable of being implemented by every country at every level."

Of all the main speakers at the opening session, only Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Harri Holkeri, president of the United Nations General Assembly, mentioned faith, belief or religion, and then only in passing.

Candlelight procession and worship service
Faith was very much to the fore on the evening of 31 August, however, when hundreds of Christians from around the world gathered for a service at the Methodist Central Mission, a candlelight procession through central Durban, and another service outside City Hall.

Under the theme "Christians Unite against Racism: May they all be one (John 17:21)", worshippers heard readings and prayers from international church leaders, including Presiding Bishop Mvumelwano Dandala of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Dandala is also the president of the South African Council of Churches and the leader of the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation to the World Conference.

In his sermon, Bishop Rubin, Anglican bishop of Natal, said there is no clearer vision of racial justice and equality than that given in the Bible. "The vision, based on the story of creation and affirmed in Christís redemption," he said, "states clearly and unequivocally that the whole human family is created by God in Godís image to exist in unity and equality.

"Discrimination and prejudice of any description has no place in the scheme of Godís creation of the human family. Thus any violation of Godís intention, including racism, is a sin both against God and the human family."

Christians must acknowledge and confess that racism and other forms of prejudice and intolerance still existed in the church, Phillip continued. "We must cry: Lord have mercy, Christe Eleison, Nkosi Sihawukele."

Phillip suggested that it is necessary to apologize to and seek forgiveness from one another "if our quest for genuine unity and reconciliation is to bear lasting fruit. Instead of being defensive about and denying the existence of racism, let us rather have the grace to apologize for our acts - or the nationsí acts - of racism, and to seek forgiveness from those whom we or our forbears have offended. To close the door on forgiveness is to close the door to true reconciliation."

On the other hand, he said, those who have been at the receiving end of racism must also find the courage to forgive, however difficult that may be. "To forgive the other is to set that person free and to contribute to her discovering her full humanity, which was eroded in the act of racist behaviour."

"I am convinced that if South Africans (as I am sure is the case with other nations) are to discover their new humanity in this beautiful and incredible land, then we must confess our wrongs, seek forgiveness and find the grace to forgive," he said.

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