by Sylvain Comeau
This summers World Conference Against Racism was torn by conflicting
agendas and plagued by bad press, but still yielded some promising results,
speakers on two panel discussions said on the final day of the Concordia
This conference was supposed to look at issues beyond classic white
versus black racism, including ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance,
trafficking in people, racial discrimination, the intersection of sexual
orientation and race, said Laurie Wiseberg, the United Nations
NGO liaison officer for the World Conference. The scope was far broader
than the last such conference, in 1983, which focused almost exclusively
on South Africas apartheid system.
Wiseberg feels that the venue this time Durban, South Africa
was of great symbolic importance, but she acknowledged that the conference
was trying to move ahead with its lofty goals even as the wheels were
starting to fall off. The refusal of wealthy nations to acknowledge
slavery as crimes against humanity, which might give more strength to
demands for reparations, was a major stumbling block. It wasnt just
the Middle East issue; some people asked whether the opposition to Israel
and demands for a declaration equating Zionism with racism could have
been a convenient excuse for the withdrawal of the American delegation.
She said that the format for conference took the form of Who hurts
more, who has suffered more? People felt that they had the
right to describe their suffering, and they did, but the Palestinians
censored the Jewish document and removed a paragraph on anti-Semitism.
Despite the conferences goals of promoting tolerance, the
atmosphere was very hostile, and there were lots of demonstrations with
In addition, many controversial topics which had been aired during the
conference, such as the issue of caste systems, were simply left
off the final document, and thoughtful panel discussions were
obscured by media coverage of the Middle East issue, which many people
felt had hijacked the conference. Wiseberg said that because of
that strife, the UN is not likely to attempt another world conference
of this type, but one positive result will be regional conferences on
issues surrounding racism.
Keder Hypolite, co-chair of the NGO steering committee for the Canadian
delegation, said that NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were not given
enough time to speak at the Durban conference. However, the media spotlight
on the event allowed NGOs to be heard outside of official channels. We
were protesting every day, and we were seen and heard by the world.