justice, peace and creation
Ecumenical Teams to the UN Regional Preparatory meetings for the
World Conference Against Racism

The second Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), was held on May 21-June 1, 2001 in Geneva, Switzerland. This PrepCom brought together States’ delegates, UN related bodies, and NGOs from all over the world. As the different groups settled down to work, it became evident that the process was too cumbersome to be accomplished in one plenary situation. The draft declaration and the programme of action texts (which are to be released at the UN Conference in Durban, were too long to be reviewed together. Government delegate after delegate expressed their concern about the daunting job of dealing with two unedited documents, filled with repetitions and brackets, indicating parts of the texts still to be discussed or even in dispute.

The plenary was therefore divided into two sub-plenaries to specifically address the draft declaration, and the other to deal with the programme for action. After many hours of going back and forth, the chairperson of the Africa group, who is the Kenyan representative, urged the delegates to exhibit political will in their deliberations. But the PrepCom was unable to finish discussing either document. As a result, a group of 21 member states was established with the mandate to edit the documents in the two weeks after the PrepCom. The delegates also agreed to have a Third PrepCom in Geneva on July 30-August 10.

The WCC was well represented at this Second PrepCom. The WCC team was composed of 24 people; 3 women and 1 man from Asia, 3 women and 3 men from Africa (3 of whom were from the South Africa Council of Churches, the host country for the UN Conference), 1 man and 2 women from North America, 2 women and 1 man from Europe, 1 man from Caribbean, 2 women and 2 men from Latin America, and 4 WCC staff. There were also 2 youth representatives. These were people from all regions, who had already participated in the UN regional preparatory meetings and others who had previously attended the WCC regional meetings.

Two days into the PrepCom, the WCC delegates began to express concern that the government delegates seemed to lack the urgently needed political will necessary to facilitate a smooth running of the UN conference in Durban.

The WCC team met every morning for members to report on their participation in different caucuses, their lobbying activities and to discuss the challenges confronting the NGOs attending the PrepCom. Those attending the women's caucus expressed concern that the issue of the intersections of gender and racism was not being taken seriously - some government delegates having gone as far as arguing that the conference was on racism not on sexism. The WCC women participants reported that the women's caucus was working on language for the draft declaration and the programme of action. Those who attended the youth caucus also expressed frustration with the way things were progressing. They did however report that the youth caucus was working hard to get youth issues included in the draft documents. Other participants attended the Dalits’ caucus, the African descendant caucus, the Indigenous Peoples caucus and the Gay and Lesbian caucus.

Several other NGOs also expressed their dissatisfaction with the process within the PrepCom. The WCC delegation joined other NGOS in charging the States with having excluded them from the process, despite the appeal of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that they should be included.

In many preparatory meetings, NGOs had little or no time to make their interventions. As a result, NGOs organized themselves to write letters of protest which, however, led only to a minimal acknowledgment of their presence by the States and one or two NGOs being given time to make statements. But the plenary always proceeded as though what the NGOs had said was inconsequential.

In addition to the limited time for interventions, governments began to hold their meetings in closed sessions leaving NGOs to scramble in the hallways, trying to get a sense of what was happening. The NGOs coordinating committee, and the UN-NGOs liaison person, Laurie Wiseberg, had as little or zero information, as the NGOS. Much of the NGO effort was therefore spent networking amongst themselves. In their frustration, some NGOs organized protest matches such as one, attended by the WCC delegation, calling for justice for the Dalits in India. In addition, some NGOs issued press releases and declarations. The WCC delegation issued two press releases, one in support of the Dalits’ struggle, and another commenting on the PrepCom process.

The WCC delegation used the WCC submission to the High Commissioner on Human Rights, made on August 15, 2000, as the basis for its interventions and lobbying. This document was one of the NGOs documents distributed by the UN during the informal consultation in March 2001. Presently the WCC is revising the document to include recommendations from the WCC regional consultations.

The WCC Regional Preparatory meetings for the UN World Conference Against Racism The WCC has had its own parallel preparatory meetings in all regions - specifically, Africa, Asia, Pacific, North America, South America and the Caribbean. There are also plans for a consultation on the intersections of Gender, Religion and Racism in Madagascar in July 2001, and a follow up conference in Europe in December 2001, after the World Conference in Durban.

The regional WCC consultations were designed to address the five themes of the world conference from a faith based perspective, to provide regional input into the WCC submission, and to discuss the effect of the regional work of the churches on racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Organizing and attending these consultations has been a very enriching experience for the ecumenical team, as they have listened to participants and speakers share their churches' efforts in the struggle against racism.

Churches deal with racism in diverse ways, from prayers to political intervention. The efforts that stood out the most are the ones that have begun from a change of heart leading to political intervention, either on a local, national or international level.

These regional consultations have also heightened WCC's knowledge of the damage caused by the missionary enterprise. For so many years Indigenous Peoples have welcomed strangers into their communities, many of them missionaries who worked, not to preach the gospel of Christ, but to condemn the local cultures and religions of the communities they encountered. For Indigenous communities, becoming a Christian meant denying their culture and religion, and being pressured to imitate the culture and religion of the missionaries. Today millions of Christians are trying to recover their lost heritage while holding onto their Christianity. In some regions, the churches own massive acres of lands extorted from Indigenous communities with the help of colonial authorities. In other regions, the churches have to confront their past wrongs, in breaking up families by the introduction of boarding schools, and the abuse against children in missionary schools. As NGOs and Southern governments call for reparations for past losses, participants in these regional meetings reminded the WCC that the churches need self-examination and the show , repentance, apology and reparations to victims.

The UN World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance - Durban, South Africa; August 28-September 7, 2001

As time draws close to the UN conference in Durban, many NGOs are struggling to find meaning in their participation, and to give their input into the final text of the Declaration and programme for Action to be adopted at the conference. There are a number of pre-Durban planning meetings scheduled throughout the world.

For the WCC, this is also a time to consolidate the regional inputs into the WCC submission, to be offered in Durban, as a message from the churches. In addition to a delegation of 35 people from all the regions, the WCC will send representatives to the youth Summit immediately the NGOs forum; will present two workshops, in collaboration with World YWCA; convene a workshop on the intersections of Gender, Racism and religion, and another on Globalization, Racism and the role of Religion. There are also plans to conduct ‘listening projects’ with the Friends World Committee for Consultation; to host a roundtable discussion on the role of the South Africa churches in the post apartheid period and, possibly, hold two interfaith worship services, one at the beginning of the NGOs’ forum and the other during the UN official conference. The WCC has also applied for a stand that will be used for displays and presentation by various member churches of WCC.

he WCC is also working closely with the South African Council of Churches in preparation for the UN conference. Marilia Schüller, programme officer for the WCC programme to Combat Racism team, visited the churches in South Africa in June 2001. Her visit was to begin collaborating efforts with the local ecumenical bodies to make the UN conference experience productive for the local churches, and to ensure the local churches involvement in the process leading up to the conference.

This is also a time for self-examination by the WCC as many groups who are discriminated against call upon the churches to stand up for them, and to provide financial resources for them to make their voices heard at the UN conference.

The major task lies on the implementation of the outcomes of the UN conference. Let us pray for the decision-makers in the process toward the World Conference Against Racism and for those planning to attend. May we also not lose sight of the work that needs to continue after the UN World Conference against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

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