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The Disgrace In Durban

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An international discussion about racism is overdue, but not done this way

This was never going to be an easy conference," said Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as she spoke in Durban last week at the opening session of the U.N. Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. That was an understatement. The conference was a disgrace. It was a disgrace in conception--in the very idea that a few days of talk could lead to any useful action directed against a scourge that diminishes the lives of millions--and it was a disgrace in execution. The only good thing that might conceivably come out of the conference is a determination by governments and the Secretariat of the U.N. that something so ill advised, so poorly prepared, so intellectually bankrupt and so easily hijacked by special pleading must never be allowed to happen again.

The conference was conceived, in 1997, in the conviction--a true one--that "the dream of a world free of racial hatred and bias remains only half fulfilled." Robinson hoped the conference would "shape and embody the spirit of the new century, based on [the] shared conviction that we are all members of the human family." But for such sentiments to be more than pious cant, those who went to Durban had to travel in a spirit of generosity, reconciliation and compromise. Few did.

The absence of those virtues was most noted in the deliberations on the Middle East, which led the U.S. and Israeli delegations to withdraw from the meeting. They had no choice. Early drafts of the official communique included language on Israel's behavior that no American or Israeli government could tolerate. But that isn't the half of it. Like all U.N. gabfests since the first Earth Summit at Rio in 1992, the conference at Durban was but the formal core of a giant carnival, something like a medieval ice fair in a Bruegel painting. Increasingly, these "forums" of nongovernmental organizations have become the main event. In principle, the participation of ngos in international meetings is to be welcomed; it opens up debate beyond the stilted language and well-rehearsed positions of the diplomats. But the practice can be very different.

In Durban, the behavior of some in the NGO forum was contemptible. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were on sale; flyers asking (approvingly) WHAT IF HITLER HAD WON? were freely displayed. In more than one place in its rambling, incoherent, 474-paragraph-long "Declaration," the forum declared Israel to be a "racist, apartheid state." (The full text of the declaration is available at I urge readers to look at it.) Michael Salberg, a New York City attorney attending the conference as an observer for the Anti-Defamation League, says of the forum, "There is no way to have prepared myself, as an American Jew born in the second half of the 20th century, for the experience." Robinson--amid the usual encomiums to civil society and the usual criticism of the media for concentrating on divisive issues--said she was "disturbed and distressed by the vitriolic words and inappropriate content" on display. The real shock of Durban is not that the U.S. and Israel chose to leave; it is that the delegations of other democracies stayed.

But stay they did. The Europeans, in particular, stuck around to see if they could salvage something on the Middle East and forge a compromise with those African delegations seeking some compensation for the Atlantic slave trade. On the latter, in the end, the Europeans offered a sort of apology for slavery but one that fell short of opening themselves to legal liability for its consequences. The compromise reeked of hypocrisy: the Europeans adopted language they knew was costless, while the Africans wilfully ignored the continuation of slavery on their continent to the present day. The debate--which deserves to be a real one--over whether it makes sense to fund some form of compensation for the consequences of slavery is not advanced by institutionalized dishonesty like this.

Meanwhile, a few hours' flying time from Durban, in the eastern Congo basin, a war whose roots lie in European colonialism, economic exploitation and intra-African ethnic hatred continued unabated. For what happened last week, disgrace is too kind a word.


Cover Date: September 17, 2001


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