How Durban Succeeded

Richard Wright wrote that there was something "extra-political" about the 1955 Bandung Conference, the meeting where African and Asian anti-colonial freedom fighters turned heads of state created the identity of a non-aligned "third world." Wright wrote that the elusive force "smacked of tidal waves, of natural forces." Although you'd never guess it from the deeply pessimistic coverage the recently concluded World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) received, there was a similar sense among many delegates that something meaningful was taking place, more so outside the Durban convention center than within.

Hours before the WCAR was scheduled to conclude, the draft resolution remained rejected by the official European Union and Palestinian delegates. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) described the conference as "stormy" and reported on the controversy surrounding the rejection of the Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) Declaration by Mary Robinson, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. But in the surrounding streets, restaurants and hotel lobbies, NGO delegates were carrying on as they had all week.

Daniel Edwin J. Das, an independent writer who works with the Indian National Coalition for Dalit Human Rights, was adamant that despite widespread claims that the Arab countries had "hijacked" the conference -- a questionable choice of words to say the least -- the conference was a disaster only to some.

"Maybe for the governments of the world, Durban was a failure. Maybe for the media of the world, Durban was a failure because it focused on Israel and the United States. But for the people of the world, it has been a major success. We have been able to build links amongst ourselves -- Dalits, Africans and African descendants, Palestinians, indigenous people."

The sentiment among many NGO delegates was that the U.S. government had worked to ensure the conference's failure by working desperately to distract the world's attention from the substantive work that many of them had set out to do.

NGO delegates struggled to keep up with the latest plot twists as the Bush administration first threatened not to send a delegation, grudgingly sent a low-level delegation and finally added insult to injury by pulling out days into the proceedings. But after getting over being hoodwinked and bamboozled by the U.S. government's tactics, delegates went about the business of milking the gathering for all it had to offer.

In the tents set up outside the highly secured convention center, at the tables where organizations made their literature available, while marching in the streets or waiting in the interminable lines for conference accreditation, people did just what the U.S. government and other obstructionist forces feared they would: They talked. They exchanged ideas and words of support. They attempted to learn from each other's struggles. They acknowledged and discussed the issues they faced back home that had brought them there to Durban.

Even within the official conference program there was a safe haven from the measured wording and political jockeying needed to get particular language into the Declaration and Program of Action that would be the conference's only tangible product. The Voices Special Forum on Comparative Experiences of racism, organized by the International Human Rights Law Group and the South Africa Human Rights Commission, put a human face on the issues of racism discussed, from the Rwandan genocide to discrimination against the Roma in Eastern Europe. Over the course of the week, 21 people from all over the world testified before a panel of UN officials as to their personal experiences with racism, telling stories that showed the systemic effects of racial discrimination.

Saikou Diallo, the father of Amadou Diallo, who was killed in February 1999 by New York City police officers, spoke about losing his son to the racist U.S. criminal justice system. Monica Morgan testified as a representative of the Yorta Yorta people, who are indigenous to Southeastern Australia. Morgan spoke about the "stolen generation," over a hundred thousand children who were removed from their indigenous families and held in detention centers or Anglo-Australians' homes where they were "trained to be domestics, brainwashed to be assimilated and violated."

Ana del Carmen Martinez reported the atrocities she has suffered as an Afro-Colombian displaced by the civil war and drug interdiction efforts funded by the U.S. government in the name of its "war on drugs." Delegates sat in silence as Martinez described being forced to watch paramilitaries tie up a neighbor and dismember him before killing him, a warning to the members of her community of what they would face if they attempted to return to their native lands. The municipal stadium turned refugee camp were she was taken and forced to live for four years was so overcrowded that 1,200 people slept on the basketball court. There was no running water, no toilets.

"We saw our oppressors in the street. We felt tremendous fear. Our children could not go to school. We began to suffer from illnesses we had never had in the past. Our bodies and those of our children became marked by this fear. We only know how to work the land; it is part of our culture. They blamed us for everything, even our lack of hygiene. There are many sad children. But we laugh, we sing, we celebrate. Joy is resistant. Our souls are not for sale."

Hopefully, the people in attendance at Durban will build on the momentum established there, carrying the shared experience of the conference within the conference and the extra-political alliances formed home to their communities, where the real work begins.

Dani McClain attended the WCAR on behalf of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.

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