The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance Convenes Imperfect Documents Represent an Achievement

The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance convened from 31 August to 8 September 2001 in Durban, South Africa. The Conference adopted by consensus a Declaration and a Program of Action that commits Member States to undertake a wide range of measures to combat racism and discrimination at the international, regional and national levels. The two documents were far from perfect, and as such did not present the historic breakthrough expected in the struggle to eradicate all forms of racism. Nevertheless, the two documents represent an important achievement; one of which should be built upon, particularly in terms of follow-up and action taken by States to ensure implementation of the Declaration and the Program of Action as well as to ensure the effective continuation of the battle against racism.

The Conference faced serious difficulty as a result of the U.S withdrawal, followed by Israel. The U.S. publicly announced that its withdrawal was because of issues pertaining to the Middle East, although many suspect that there were various other reasons, including the wish to avoid the issues of slavery and reparation. Other western countries, including the European Union (EU), bravely decided to stay. However, their attitudes and positions were heavily influenced by the U.S. withdrawal. Some of them, in some cases, even had to play the role of the U.S. had it remained. On the other hand, Israel’s withdrawal made it the biggest loser. Israel refused to engage in dialogue and discussion, thus isolating itself from the rest of the world.

The situation of Palestine and the issue of the Middle East received a considerable share of the focus of attention, in addition to the huge interest shown by the NGO forum and the public at large in South Africa. The language of the final documents did not fulfill the expectations nor did it fully reflect the subject matter of the Conference. The language in the final documents included that States, "Are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation", and that they "recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent state". Further, they "recognized the right of refugees to return voluntarily to their homes and properties in dignity and safety, and urged all States to facilitate such return."

In addition to the above language in the final documents, references were also made to the Fourth Geneva Convention and calls on Member States to ensure respect of the Convention were reiterated. It is also important to refer to the fact that a follow-up mechanism was agreed upon which would, of course, enable the Palestinian side to follow-up with their issue. However, the language, regrettably, did not refer to Israel by name or to its policies and practices. That major shortcoming was inevitable due to the EU’s insistence - and even threat to walk out of the Conference – if such language was to be included in the final document. A similar situation was also more or less present with regard to issues of the past, which included slavery, apology and reparations. The language adopted in the document referred to slavery as a crime against humanity only at the present time with no clear position regarding the past. The issuance of an apology was replaced with vague language, as was the issue of reparation.

As mentioned above, despite everything that transpired throughout the course of the Conference, the Durban Conference was an achievement that all of us should strive to build upon. As such, congratulations are due to several parties, including the U.N. Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the President of the Conference and the Host Country.