Sunday, April 19, 2009

Behind the US Government's Boycott of the Durban Review Conference Against Racism in Geneva

Int’l Conference Against Racism: Behind the U.S. gov’t boycott

Published Apr 18, 2009 8:53 AM
By Monica Moorehead and Sara Flounders

The decision by the Obama administration to boycott the Durban Review Conference Against Racism has raised a torrent of petitions, protests and criticism. An actual boycott of the upcoming April 20-24 meeting would be the first time that the United States has refused to participate in a United Nations conference. This has come as a shock to many who expected a fundamentally different attitude toward an international conference on racism from the Obama administration.

In September 2001 the U.S. delegation and the Israeli delegation walked out of the historic World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance organized by the United Nations in Durban, South Africa.

Both the U.S. and Israel labeled all efforts to express solidarity with Palestinians as victims of racism and colonialism as anti-Semitism. The U.S. delegation also opposed the call for reparations and concrete action measures for the crime against humanity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the heritage of centuries of racist discrimination on an international level.

What is at stake? Why has U.S. participation in two international conferences against racism generated such intense political maneuvering by two very different administrations –those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama?

In a country built on the slavery of African people and genocide of Indigenous people, the response to both of these international conferences shows at lot about the nature of U.S. government institutions—regardless of who is president. Neither foreign nor domestic policy exists to meet the needs of oppressed peoples or nations.

Accomplishments of the Durban Conference

The 2001 Durban World Conference against Racism was attended by more than 10,000 people from all regions of the world. It consisted of three parallel gatherings—an official diplomatic gathering of nations, a youth forum and a massive, vibrant NGO (non-governmental organization) Forum. At this NGO Forum the largest number of delegates and participants were from Africa or of African decent, along with many other people of color. More than 1,500 community and popular organizations and NGOs represented the “voices of the victims.”

Many thousands of South Africans, recently liberated from decades of racist apartheid rule, enthusiastically participated in the meetings and rallies of the NGO Forum.

The NGO Forum was an important catalyst for many groups from around the globe to come together, network and build support for work against racism and discrimination. It was also a form of radical mass pressure on the diplomats of every country involved in the small official conference.

The international conference adopted by consensus the Durban Declaration and Program of Action. Many consider this document, especially the Program of Action, as an important framework for the struggle against racism and racial discrimination. It was a collective product hammered out by hundreds of organizations of people of color from around the world.

The first international acknowledgement of slavery and the slave trades as a crime against humanity sparked a movement for reparations in the U.S. that included class action lawsuits against several corporations that were direct beneficiaries of the slave trade as well as the 2002 Millions for Reparations rally in Washington, D.C.

The international conference gave a major boost to the BDS movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel in solidarity with Palestine. The inclusion, along with African people, of Indigenous peoples, immigrant workers, Roma people and other national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities along with all those affected by gender oppression, was a concrete step in building international solidarity among the oppressed.

The U.S. ruling class along with its media understood the enormous threat to their power, image and dominance on a global scale that this united gathering inherently represented.

Despite the U.S. and Israeli walk-out at the 2001 conference, expectations ran high that the Program of Action would provide concrete steps that member states and international organizations would take to put an end to centuries of racism and racial discrimination. However, three days after the end of this militant international gathering came the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and a sharp turn in the political climate.

Problems of Geneva Meeting

From April 20 to 24, the United Nations will host the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, as a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations is responsible for organizing and convening the event “towards the effective and comprehensive implementation” of the conclusions and recommendations of WCAR” and to continue the “global drive for the total elimination of racism.”

On paper this sounds fine. But why is the Durban Review Conference Against Racism not in Durban, South Africa, or anywhere in Africa? Why is it in Geneva, Switzerland—one of the most expensive cities in the world?

It is easy and fairly inexpensive, especially for delegates from Europe and the United States, to travel to Geneva. And U.S. and European delegates to a conference there face no visa requirements at all. However, it is not only prohibitively expensive for delegates from African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American countries, but Swiss visa restrictions make it much more difficult for them to attend.

Many anti-racist organizations have petitioned and campaigned to express their concern over the failure of the UN Conference Secretariat to provide more accessible information and invitations to NGOs to participate in the meetings of the Preparatory Committee and in the Review Conference itself.

Internationally many groups have demanded to know why is there no NGO Forum accompanying this conference, as there was in Durban and as there has been at every U.N. conference for decades? Where are the arrangements for mass meeting spaces and housing facilities? Why is there only limited space and time for a few sidebar meetings? Why was the allocated funding for the many thousands of delegates, especially from Africa and the African Diaspora who were anxious to attend, not dispersed? African NGOs petitioned the Preparatory Committee months ago for information, funding and access.

Major foundations that provided funding for community activists to attend the 2001 conference, such as the Ford Foundation and many European Union foundations, have cut off all access to funds for the Durban Review Conference.

Only NGOs accredited with ECOSOC (the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs), NGOs previously accredited, and those that knew how to apply for specific accreditation are able to participate in Geneva.

In the eight years since the Durban Conference, there has been an unrelenting campaign to malign, discredit and distort the World Conference Against Racism, to gut every provision that called for concrete action, to drop the collective document that was so enthusiastically passed, and especially to limit the participation of who can attend the follow-up conference. All of this has gone on behind the scenes, based on intense U.S. pressure, in collusion with that of the European powers that also benefited from centuries of racism and colonialism.

Almost every page of the Program of Action approved overwhelmingly in Durban is a threat and a challenge to U.S. policy and its corporate institutions. The Program of Action is hardly a revolutionary document, but the U.S. is in violation of almost every provision, and would find the proposed remedies to racism totally unacceptable–from debt relief to transfer of technology, immigrant rights and ending human trafficking.

The Durban call for respect and the increased role of international organizations in protecting labor rights and women’s rights—especially of the most oppressed women—is a threat to the very process of corporate globalization.

The Durban call for all nations to sign past progressive international treaties and conventions draws attention to the numerous treaties that the U.S. government has refused to sign for decades such as conventions on labor rights, migrant rights, women’s rights, rights of the child, international genocide, and numerous other international agreements that U.S. corporate powers ignore and violate on a daily basis.

The only right that U.S. institutions advance, in the name of freedom, is the right of privately owned corporations to freely loot the globe.

Just as for decades Israel has been the main defender of U.S. policy in the Middle East—always willing to do the dirty work of military enforcement—the Zionist forces have once more stepped forward to play the attack role. In fact most of the last eight years of political attacks on the Durban Conference have been carried out by Zionist organizations.

Since 2001 the U.S. has refused to participate in any of the preparatory meetings and has used threats of nonparticipation to demand and actually gain hundreds of changes.

The 47-page Durban document has now been censored and edited down to less then a third of its original size. As a condition of participation Washington has demanded that the Durban Program of Action be totally dropped, that any mention of reparations be deleted, along with the one mention of Israel and its apartheid practices.

After imposing a now-toothless document on the conference, the U.S. government is still dragging its feet on participation. These conscious acts of sabotage have encouraged other countries to also withdraw. Canada has dutifully announced that it will not participate, and Britain and France continue to threaten to withdraw unless the agenda is further constrained and censored.

Anti-racist groups support Durban documents

A number of anti-racist organizations have continued the struggle to support the Durban Declaration and the Program of Action.

In Geneva on April 14, a group of NGOs issued a statement supporting and reaffirming the groundbreaking positions arrived at in Durban on such topics as the slave trade, slavery, poverty and discrimination, reparations, foreign occupation, Palestine, migrants and on the issue of Islamophobia and religious intolerance.

Although hardly on the scale of the massive NGO Forum in Durban, a number of progressive NGOs are planning meetings and events during the meetings of diplomats from most countries of the world.

The threats, boycott and pressure to gut all that the Durban Conference achieved exposes, in the most graphic way possible, that despite the accomplishment of the election of a Black man to the U.S. presidency, the institutions of corporate power of U.S. imperialism remain opposed to every attempt at more fundamental change in the racist character of U.S. society.

Several petitions urging U.S. participation in the Durban Review Conference, the NGO Declaration reaffirming Durban, events in Geneva, links to the Durban World Conference Against Racism Declaration and Program of Action are posted on the web site of the International Action Center:

Monica Moorehead is the editor and co-author of “Marxism, Reparations and the Black Freedom Struggle,” which can be ordered from She is also coordinator of the Millions For Mumia anti-death penalty project. Sara Flounders is the co-director of the IAC and N.Y. U.N. Representative for Nord Sud XXI–an NGO based in Geneva.
Articles copyright 1995-2009 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Page printed from:

No comments: