Int’l Conference Against Racism: Behind the U.S. gov’t boycott
Published Apr 18, 2009 8:53 AM
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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: www.IACenter.org
Monica Moorehead is the editor and co-author of “Marxism, Reparations
and the Black Freedom Struggle,” which can be ordered from
www.leftbooks.com. 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.
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