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October 11, 2001 Turmoil at Durban conference yielded some positive results




by Sylvain Comeau

This summer’s 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 conference.

“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 Africa’s 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 wasn’t 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 conference’s goals of promoting tolerance, “the atmosphere was very hostile, and there were lots of demonstrations with anti-Semitic slogans.”

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.”