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A very bad day at the Racism Conference

By Susan Harris Rimmer - posted Monday, 10 September 2001

"Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will and must be defeated."
UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan

The UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) has begun in Durban, South Africa. It is the first global opportunity to discuss racism issues at a special UN forum, as the previous UN efforts have focussed exclusively on ending apartheid in South Africa. Hence the significance of the location of the conference and the great desire on the part of host government South Africa for WCAR to yield tangible results.

Racism, racial intolerance, xenophobia and related intolerance – this is difficult and complex subject matter, not to mention extremely sensitive for all governments. WCAR was always going to be messy once the clear target of apartheid had disappeared. But no one predicted with accuracy this level of visceral diplomatic conflict.


As of today, 4th September, the WCAR remains mired in controversy. Many participants considered the Non-Governmental Organisations Forum, which preceded WCAR, as a farce. The NGO Declaration that was meant to influence the official government-led Conference has not yet been finished or commented on by most of the NGO delegates and will be too late to influence proceedings to any large extent. The USA and Israeli delegations have pulled out over references to Zionism as racism in the context of the escalating Middle East conflict. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism Mary Robinson appeared at her wits end when she said yesterday that she regretted the decision by the United States and Israel to withdraw from the Durban meeting.

"Countless people around the world have placed high hopes on this Conference", she said. "We owe it to them to work until the very last minute to have at the end of our meeting a ringing endorsement of tolerance and respect for human dignity".

Meanwhile Australia is well on its way to being considered a pariah internationally for its stance on refusing to let the Norwegian cargo ship the Tampa land at Christmas Island with its load of rescued asylum-seekers. This act is unequivocally seen as having racist or xenophobic overtones from the international media, not to mention related to the upcoming election.

So how has the World Conference Against Racism gone so horribly wrong, from both an Australian and a global perspective? Is there any hope for a useful outcome?

By way of background, in 1997 the United Nations General Assembly, on the recommendation of the UN Commission on Human Rights, decided to convene a world conference against racism, racial intolerance, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Since 1973 and until 2003, the United Nations has declared three decades of action to combat racism. There have been two earlier world conferences on racism in this time, in 1978 and 1983. Even earlier, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1965. In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly decided to proclaim 2001 as the International Year of Mobilization against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, with the WCAR held in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7, 2001.


The WCAR discussions are focusing on five themes, which concern:

  1. The way racism is manifested
  2. Who racism affects
  3. How racism can be prevented
  4. How racism can be remedied
  5. Strategies to combat racism

The outcomes of the discussions will be a Declaration and a Global Program of Action, with action-oriented recommendations to combat racism.

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About the Author

Dr Susan Harris Rimmer is an academic at the Australian National University and is President of national voluntary NGO Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

Other articles by this Author

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