Frank talk

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the major tasks WCAR originally intended are still not done. The questions of financial reparations for slavery and colonialism remain unanswered. Officially they received cursory attention, with only a sprinkling of African leaders even glossing over the matter, a dismissal that trivialises the legacy of slavery that is so central to African-American and African-Caribbean identity. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo went perhaps furthest, suggesting that an official apology by former slave-trading nations was sufficient to heal the past’s deep wounds. That was all.

But not all Durban’s results were frustrating. There is one cause for celebration: WCAR’s saboteurs dug their own graves, were roundly denounced and their machinations laid bare. With its unceremonious walk-out, Washington has stated unequivocally what it stands for — double standards and double talk.

“America is a racist state,” explained US Congresswoman Diane Watson, one of seven lawmakers who attended WCAR. Another, Cynthia McKinney, presented United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, in charge of proceedings at the WCAR conference in Durban, with two documents. Those documents contained damning evidence of successive US governments’ gross violations of African-Americans’ civil rights. The first, a confidential memorandum written by former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in 1978, details a federal government plan to eliminate black leadership in the US. The second, Human Rights in the US, is a dossier compiled by the Human Rights Research Fund, headed by former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, a New York-based law professor and civil rights advocate. It charges the US with unleashing its “full resources against its own law-abiding citizens.” Moreover, in engagingly frank discussions, African-American critics of the US government are clear about Washington’s motives. “Economics was always the basis for racism,” stressed Eddie Bernie Johnson, chair of congress’ black caucus.

The host nation spelt out the key problem. “The US’s withdrawal from the conference is merely a red herring demonstrating an unwillingness to confront real issues posed by racism in the US,” said a South African government statement.

In Durban, the Americans were doing their hackneyed slapstick routine. “Would I get compensation for slavery, or would I pay it?” asked US Secretary of State Colin Powell facetiously. Powell, the highest-ranking African-American government official, boycotted the WCAR conference in Durban ostensibly because of Washington’s objection to language denouncing Israeli policies in the occupied territories. He was not the only one to complain. A board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Julian Bond, let his name appear on a full-page New York Times advertisement condemning the Palestinian Intifada. Only American minorities, it seems, are worth fighting for.

There are reasons other than those Powell gave for his scepticism about WCAR. Washington is saddled with a contradictory world strategy: its dubious crusade for democracy among impoverished nations will encourage the poor world in its struggle against inhumane global governance. But what for the weak is inhuman, makes the mighty of our planet entirely content. “The squandering rich,” as Cuban President Fidel Castro put it in Durban, are in no position to dictate the terms of the fight against racism. They have clearly lost the high moral ground, and could not even muster the political will for a showdown.

They missed out. Durban’s WCAR was a golden opportunity for tackling, on a global scale, issues that the world has never before discussed. The representatives of civil society guided and inspired the official delegates. This was of particular significance since civil society activists “bring clarity” because they “discuss openly those awkward issues that governments have to avoid, or to blur, in the interest of reaching consensus.” But not all governments, alas, were in attendance to be edified. African countries with most at stake sent top-level delegations. Many Western delegates, with little to lose for not showing up, and acutely conscious of being spotlighted, sent lower-level representatives to Durban. Mainly African heads of state attended; European, American and Asian leaders largely stayed away, though many European and Asian countries sent their foreign ministers to South Africa.

Perhaps the heads of state were right to stay away. In Durban, representatives of the black and poor worlds put the West, and in particular, the US, in the dock. The West reinforces its hegemony with the resources it is able to appropriate from poor countries, Africans argued. The discussions that centred around colonialism and the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves were the most telling barometers of the Western powers’ commitment to correcting the wrongs of the past. Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, along with the US, ardently opposed discussion of reparations for slavery and colonialism. These are countries that historically profited most from the slave trade. Others, like Germany, France and Italy, were more open to self-criticism.

But despite the truculence of most Western powers, the delegates did manage to discuss other meaningful issues: like racism in the workplace. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Robinson, employers and trade unions held discussions on this insidious form of discrimination.

There were other positive signs. It was refreshing to see that when the host government is on the side of justice, there is no need brutally to repress demonstrators protesting against great power chicanery, as happened in previous international conferences at Seattle, Prague and Genoa. Indeed, there was evidence of the hosts harnessing the moral authority of the conference to highlight the plight of the poor and the strength of feeling of black and other disadvantaged people.

Among the most disadvantaged are those people who originally dwelt on lands later colonised. The delegates at Durban roundly denounced racism against indigenous peoples. There are precedents. The establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous populations in 1982 was followed by the UN International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004). The focus today is on the creation of a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, and drafting a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN Commission on Human Rights. Beyond this, the US, Canada and Australia are urged to develop further policies to settle land claims with indigenous peoples. Nunavut, Canada’s newest and largest territory, established in 1999 for Inuit people, was used as a showcase.

The WCAR conference also spotlighted the plight of another beleaguered indigenous minority: the world’s 10 million Roma (perjoratively known as gypsies). Herded into impoverished ghettoes, the Roma lack many of the amenities enjoyed by the majority in many countries of Eastern Europe. Not only politically sidelined, the Roma are racially segregated as a matter of policy, discriminated against, abused and humiliated in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. They are worse educated and less healthy than their compatriots; even their personal safety is endangered. At the height of the civil war in Kosovo, both ethnic Albanians and Serbs committed largely unreported atrocities against the local Roma; their women and children were trafficked. The conditions of the Roma in Bosnia, Croatia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia is equally grim.

But all the fine words and progress will be for naught, unless WCAR proves that Africans, African- Americans, the world’s poor, the economically marginalised and the politically disenfranchised can be historical actors on the world stage.