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Will global focus help fight racism?

The disputes that arose in simply setting the agenda for the conference make you wonder what, if anything, will be accomplished.

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 19, 2001

You have to give the United Nations credit for one thing: It's not afraid to tackle difficult issues.

A perfect case in point is the "World Conference Against Racism" to start later this month in Durban, South Africa. Thousands of delegates from all over the globe will gather to discuss virtually every type of racism you've ever heard about, plus some you probably haven't.

How many of us have given much thought to "environmental racism?" Among other things, that's what happens when dangerous chemicals that have been banned in rich countries like the United States are dumped on poor ones like Ecuador.

Or did you know that decades after India outlawed caste-based discrimination, the "untouchables" are still so shunned that they are denied access to land and forced to work in slave-like conditions? Or how about Australia's treatment of its aboriginals, who are 10 times more likely to be arrested than whites?

And there's much, much more -- discrimination because of age, gender, religion, sexual preference, nationality, even the state of one's health.

It's always good to hear about efforts to end the hatred and bias that consign so many of the world's people to lives of perpetual misery. But the disputes that arose in simply setting the agenda for the conference make you wonder what, if anything, will be accomplished.

Ignoring their own dismal record on human rights, Arab countries insisted that Israel's treatment of Palestinians be condemned as racial discrimination. Even though black Africans were involved in the international slave trade, African nations want an "apology" for slavery.

Meanwhile, the United States has threatened to boycott the conference altogether. "They have not officially said they will not take part," a conference spokesman said, trying to sound optimistic. "That means we are assuming they will be there."

Under U.S. pressure, a statement equating Zionism with racism was dropped from the agenda. Still unsettled is whether there will be a mea culpa for the slave trade: the United States and other developed nations oppose the idea, fearing a formal apology would leave them open to lawsuits seeking billions in reparations.

All the wrangling raises an obvious question: Do big international conferences like this, dealing with so many contentious issues, serve any any useful purpose? Or are they doomed to collapse under the weight of good intentions and political realities?

"Because these conferences are very costly, the immediate benefits are not very obvious," acknowledges Jean-Marc Coicaud, who specializes in U.N. issues for the United States Institute of Peace. "But it's kind of in the tradition of the international community to organize huge conferences on topics that are the subject of polemics but important enough to try to find common ground."

The Durban conference is the latest in a series of global pow-wows that have included the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, the 1993 Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing.

The track record of these conferences is decidely mixed. Although damage to rain forests topped the list of issues at the Earth Summit, Amazonian deforestation nearly tripled in the following few years. Delegates adopted a voluntary pact that became the basis for the 1997 Kyoto global warming treaty, but the future of that is in serious doubt because of opposition by the Bush administration.

Even women's groups are hard pressed to cite many concrete results of the Women's Conference, despite all the lofty rhetoric and "action plans." Perhaps the most substantive thing was a follow-up conference, Beijing Plus 5, held last year in New York.

As for racism, one could argue that it is best fought at the micro rather than macro level.

"Tackling racism from the podium of a comfortable conference hall is equivalent to treating the symptoms rather than the disease," writes Stephen Handelman, a Toronto Star columnist.

"To paraphrase an oft-quoted remark about politics, all racism is local. . . . Even the most outlandish and hateful theories and patterns of intolerance are rooted in local fears and ignorance. They can only be tackled through concrete measures to eliminate the gaps in education, living standards and opportunities that allow such fears to flourish."

Perhaps the most that can be hoped for out of the World Conference Against Racism is that people of different beliefs and backgrounds will spend some time relaxing over a few good meals and really get to know each other. Then they'll go back home and focus on the old problems of racism from a new, more understanding angle.

"There's a lot of diplomatic posturing, and people use these occasions to instrumentalize issues of the time, like the Mideast," says Coicaud. "But unless people meet and realize what brings them together and what keeps them apart it's very difficult to progress in international negotiations. One has to hope that the shortcomings of the exercise are being balanced out by the positive aspects."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at

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