Disaster in Durban: The United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance

By Camponovo, Christopher N. | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Disaster in Durban: The United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance


Camponovo, Christopher N., The George Washington International Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

Ambition-and perhaps some naivete-ran high when, in 1998, the United Nations General Assembly (General Assembly) adopted a resolution scheduling the third World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (Conference) for September 2001.' Following two world conferences tackling the same topics in 19782 and 1983,3 there was a sense that the international community needed a galvanizing event to strengthen its resolve and coordinate its efforts in the global fight against racism. Of even greater symbolic significance to the General Assembly was the decision to convene the Conference in Durban, South Africa, a land only recently freed from the chains of apartheid.

Recent events highlighted the need for States to work together to combat racism and racial discrimination on both the domestic and international fronts. Whether in post-colonial Africa, the Amazonian jungle, the Middle East, or South Central Los Angeles, conflict, mass migration, poverty, disease, and under-development are all inextricably linked to issues of race. While citizens must inevitaIMAGE FORMULA11

bly fight the battle against racism in the schools and the courts, in the end, the issue is essentially a political one, reflecting the true value of this Conference. Before States can adopt and implement effective measures to rid societies of racism, the political will must exist to look inward and identify its many sources, causes, and manifestations.

The United States has a long history of struggling to overcome racism and continues to suffer the consequences of over two centuries of de jure and de facto racial discrimination.4 High-profile racial discrimination cases as well as an apparent increase in hate crimes and violence reflect the persistent and insidious nature of racism. Although many of the U.S. efforts to fight racism have been successful, after years of concerted efforts to purge laws and policies of discriminatory intent and effect, racism still permeates American society. From a global viewpoint, however, the United States, as one of the largest multi-racial societies, can teach other countries about mechanisms to fight racism.

For the United States, the Conference had as much domestic significance as foreign policy importance. Unfortunately, Conference documents with language harshly critical of Israel prevented the United States from continuing its participation in the Conference. The President of the United States conditioned U.S. participation in the Conference on the removal of language unfairly singling-out and criticizing Israel from the documents. Intense diplomatic efforts in the weeks proceeding, as well as over the first few days of the Conference, failed to accomplish excision of the language. Although it caused great disappointment to the international community, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Americans, the United States and Israel walked out of the Conference on its fourth day.5 The U.S. delegation ultimately disassociIMAGE FORMULA14

ated itself entirely from the Conference and the documents it would eventually adopt. As noted by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell upon calling the delegation back to Washington, "you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language."6

The world has yet to feel the full effects of the abrupt U.S. departure from Durban. Less than a week after the end of the Conference, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon suffered a devastating terrorist attack that quickly eclipsed any international or domestic fallout from the Conference.7 With the nation and the world intently focused on building a coalition to fight terrorism, Durban seems a distant memory. Yet, racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance remain as poignant today as they were before September 11, 2001. …

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