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A Very Bad Day at the Racism Conference
Online Opinion (2001)
  • Susan Harris Rimmer

"Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will and must be defeated." - UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan

The UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) has begun in Durban, South Africa. It is the first global opportunity to discuss racism issues at a special UN forum, as the previous UN efforts have focussed exclusively on ending apartheid in South Africa. Hence the significance of the location of the conference and the great desire on the part of host government South Africa for WCAR to yield tangible results.

Racism, racial intolerance, xenophobia and related intolerance – this is difficult and complex subject matter, not to mention extremely sensitive for all governments. WCAR was always going to be messy once the clear target of apartheid had disappeared. But no one predicted with accuracy this level of visceral diplomatic conflict.


As of today, 4th September, the WCAR remains mired in controversy. Many participants considered the Non-Governmental Organisations Forum, which preceded WCAR, as a farce. The NGO Declaration that was meant to influence the official government-led Conference has not yet been finished or commented on by most of the NGO delegates and will be too late to influence proceedings to any large extent. The USA and Israeli delegations have pulled out over references to Zionism as racism in the context of the escalating Middle East conflict. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism Mary Robinson appeared at her wits end when she said yesterday that she regretted the decision by the United States and Israel to withdraw from the Durban meeting.

"Countless people around the world have placed high hopes on this Conference", she said. "We owe it to them to work until the very last minute to have at the end of our meeting a ringing endorsement of tolerance and respect for human dignity".

Meanwhile Australia is well on its way to being considered a pariah internationally for its stance on refusing to let the Norwegian cargo ship the Tampa land at Christmas Island with its load of rescued asylum-seekers. This act is unequivocally seen as having racist or xenophobic overtones from the international media, not to mention related to the upcoming election.

So how has the World Conference Against Racism gone so horribly wrong, from both an Australian and a global perspective? Is there any hope for a useful outcome?

By way of background, in 1997 the United Nations General Assembly, on the recommendation of the UN Commission on Human Rights, decided to convene a world conference against racism, racial intolerance, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Since 1973 and until 2003, the United Nations has declared three decades of action to combat racism. There have been two earlier world conferences on racism in this time, in 1978 and 1983. Even earlier, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1965. In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly decided to proclaim 2001 as the International Year of Mobilization against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, with the WCAR held in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7, 2001.

The WCAR discussions are focusing on five themes, which concern:

The way racism is manifested Who racism affects How racism can be prevented How racism can be remedied Strategies to combat racism The outcomes of the discussions will be a Declaration and a Global Program of Action, with action-oriented recommendations to combat racism.

Globally, the conflicts have been brewing since the beginning. There has been some preliminary media about WCAR, and the various PrepComs leading up to the event, and an impartial observer’s conclusion could only be that the WCAR drafting process has been at best a difficult and fraught negotiation, and at worst, a diplomatic bloodbath that was in danger of moving the agenda backwards rather than forwards. The "deal-breakers" have been, and still are:

Compensation and apologies for the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade Conflict in the Middle East – can Zionism be equated to racism, are the conditions in Palestine a new form of apartheid? Caste – can caste issues become racism for groups like the Dalits? (an issue which has been taken off the government agenda by India but pushed by NGOs) Australia is not obviously affected by any of these issues, except by analogy with the slave trade debate in terms of reparations for the stolen generation and an apology. The most pressing items on Australia’s agenda from an NGO perspective were indigenous peoples, our experience of multiculturalism, and refugee and asylum-seeker issues. After Australia’s extremely negative reaction to the UN Committee for Racial Discrimination report last year and immediate calls for treaty body reform, the NGO community may not have had high hopes for a constructive government response to WCAR. Nevertheless, many NGOs considered there were things the Australian government could justifiably put forward as "best practice" or suitable for global emulation, such as the National Museum, SBS radio and TV, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and so forth.

Therefore, a coalition of Australian NGOs have pressed on and been urging the government in a constructive manner to get more involved with the Conference, to send a high-level delegation, to publicise WCAR and to fund the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to hold consultations about WCAR in Australian communities. In the end, HREOC held excellent regional consultations around Australia and a Civil Society Forum, but with funding given by the UN rather than our own government. ATSIC held an extremely important conference on indigenous peoples and racism, attended by indigenous people from the USA, Canada, NZ and Australia, and the only forum of its kind. Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Philip Ruddock was to lead a delegation, which had several civil society representatives, a youth representative and State ministers.

Then the wheels fell off when a ship called the Tampa rescued a sinking boat.

Australian NGOs in Durban issued this statement at the beginning of WCAR on Friday 31st August:

Australia’s treatment of the refugees in the vessel now off Christmas Island represents a new low point for the country, according to the Australian NGOs currently attending the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

Speaking from Durban today, spokesperson Andrew Larcos said that "With thousands of delegates from around the world gathering together at this international conference to discuss racism, Australia could not have picked a worse possible moment to reveal an intransigent nature on a humanitarian issue."

"There is no doubt that this incident and the government’s handling of the matter has done enormous damage to Australia’s international reputation as a fair and compassionate nation."

"Let there be no doubt that the world is well aware of how Australia has mistreated these asylum-seekers. We should expect to cop a fair bit of criticism from the international delegates in attendance at this World Conference."

So what is the lesson? It may be that all the work that went into WCAR from Australians has been for nothing in terms of Australia’s reputation on racism issues in Durban itself. Activists here are reeling as to the massive popularity of the Tampa decision with the Australian public.

Perhaps the lesson of Durban and the Tampa is that NGOs here and globally need to go back to basics in their own communities. Perhaps it is yet another historical lesson about the power of leadership to tap into the fears and insecurities that underlies racist and xenophobic attitudes for electoral gain, currently happening around the globe. Perhaps Mary Robinson will rescue the final Declaration and Program for Action and it will still be an important document. Or perhaps Durban was just a necessary first, faltering step in the right direction of a long journey. That’s my fervent hope.

Publication Date
August, 2001
Citation Information
Susan Harris Rimmer. "A Very Bad Day at the Racism Conference" Online Opinion (2001)
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