U.N. conference raises more questions than answers
Written by Jimi Izrael and Barb Powell
October 2001

The United Nation's World Conference Against Racism, held Aug. 31-Sept. 7 in Durban, South Africa, left more questions than answers on the minds of many who attended, including some members of the 45-person group sent by the UCC. And while the meeting was panned in the media because of the early pullout of the U.S. delegation, work continued.

The UCC contingent was part of the nearly 4,000 representatives attending a special forum for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in support of a draft document assembled by the National Council of Churches and released by an Ecumenical Caucus of churches and other religious organizations. The draft addressed such issues as reparations for slavery, the rights of indigenous peoples, religious intolerance and the economic ramifications of globalization.

Delegates to the U.N. conference then debated the issues, sometimes heatedly, and at the close of the conference adopted a Declaration and Program of Action to combat racism and discrimination at international, regional and national levels. However, a number of delegations made known their reservations or disassociations on certain issues.

On the Middle East, the conference called for the end of violence and the swift resumption of peace negotiations; respect for international human rights and humanitarian law; and respect for the principle of self-determination and the end of all suffering, thus allowing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom. Expressing concern about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation, the Declaration recognized the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent state.

On the question of slavery, the conference agreed on text that acknowledges and profoundly regrets the massive human sufferings and the tragic plight of millions of men, women and children as a result of slavery, slave trade, transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide. Acknowledging that these were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity, the conference further acknowledged that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade.

UCC representative Carmen Alicia Nebot of Wider Church Ministries says that the United States and Israel were not in accord with the language used in the NGO draft document.

"The U.S. walked out because there was language in the certain documents on the table that was perceived as accusing Israel of being a racist nation," Nebot says. "The media was so focused on the walkout that the other issues got submerged."

According to Nebot, the United States delegation also did not agree with the language used to describe the slave trade as a crime against humanity.

Some 2,300 representatives from 163 countries, including 16 heads of state, 58 foreign ministers and 44 ministers, participated in the U.N. conference. Despite their ongoing work, the pull-out overshadowed the event, and became the only news the 1,100 accredited members of the media seemed to want to report, says Nebot.

"Walking out certainly does speak loudly and clearly," says the Rev. Robert W. Edgar, NCC General Secretary. "The U.S. government made its point, but at an unfortunate, heavy cost. The United States forfeited [an] important opportunity to address with courage the legacy, tenacity and toll of racism and to be part of taking a step ... towards setting things right."

The Rev. Yvonne Delk, a Justice and Witness board member and UCC NGO representative, says, "It was clear ... that the U.S. may have been trying to undermine the conference, or rather, that they didn't take it seriously. When they walked out, other delegations were upset that the U.S. refused to be a part of the ongoing conversations."

At the close of the conference, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that, while the agreement reach did not "contain everything ... people would like to see," it should "send a signal of hope to people struggling against racism all over the world. It is up to governments now to work with these brave people, and see that their commitments are ... fulfilled."

"It is regrettable that the useful work of the conference was overshadowed by disagreements on ... highly emotional issues ... Many hurtful things were said, particularly in the draft document submitted by the NGO Forum, which tended to inflame the atmosphere rather than to encourage rational and constructive discussion," Annan said. "Clearly we all need to reflect on this experience and see what we can learn from it ... The United Nations is a mirror to the world, and its work reflects what divides us as well as what unites us. This can be painful, but it is sometimes necessary, since only if we see our divisions clearly can we work to overcome them."

Learn more

The text of the Ecumenical Caucus draft can be found at the National Council of Churches website,  www.ncccusa.org. The text of the Declaration and Program of Action agreed upon by delegates to the Conference can be found on the UN website,  www.un.org.

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