Ask the Expert: September-October 2001


With the early departure of the U.S. delegation and controversy over discussion of slavery and the Middle East, was the recent U.N. conference on racism a failure?
One national magazine described the United Nations Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance as “The Disgrace in Durban.” Another magazine saw it is as “largely a failure,” but saw some “silver linings” in the beginning of a conversation the world sorely needs. I wish the conference had been able to deal with a more comprehensive set of issues—the problems of Afro-Latinos, the Kurds in Turkey, the untouchables in India, the indigenous people in Australia, and others so badly abused—but I would not conclude that it was either a disgrace or a failure.

I prefer to see those who are frustrated and justifiably angered by their predicament engaged in rhetoric rather than violence.
We may not have liked some of the things we heard in Durban, but it provided a forum rather than a battlefield. All of us can learn something from the passion let loose before and during the conference. We should now have a better feel for the frustration of the large numbers of people who are desperately seeking some sign that the rest of the world cares.

I wish the United States had remained engaged. We had an opportunity to help shape the final declaration. Even in our absence, the South Africans and others willing to lead the search for common ground took the conference light-years ahead of where it began. I believe that the highly respected Colin Powell could have taken it even further. This was an opportunity to talk sense about reconciliation and reparation, to shift the conver-sation away from individual compensation to assisted self-reliance and participatory development. The legacy of slavery and segregation, the intentional underdevelopment of a people, is all around us. We ignore it at our peril.

Was the conference a failure? Absolutely not. We have the beginnings of a global antiracism movement where it belongs—with the institutions of civil society. Let us not forget the role that civil-society groups played in the collapse of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ending of apartheid. Governments will only address the issues of racism, racial discrimination, and related intolerance if the people demand it. Durban may have been the beginning of a global demand.

James Joseph, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and the leader-in-residence for the Hart Leadership Program at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy

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