Articles  Reviews   Resources   Regulars   Lifestyle   Interactive   Search   About
~ Home ~ Articles ~ Reviews [Books~ Films and TV ~ Music]~ Dictionary ~ Library ~ Archives ~ Links ~ Salutes ~ Stakhanovites ~ Missives ~ The Mao of Pooh ~ Ask Uncle Rosa ~ Poetry ~ Subscribe ~ Contact Us ~ Search ~ The Turtle ~ Turtle People ~ Highlights ~

Kelly Dietz © 2001


Click here for a printer-friendly version of this page.

On 12 September, the United Nations Security Council, in its Resolution 1368, condemned the attacks on New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania. Calling the terrorist attacks "criminal and unjustifiable", the most powerful UN body expressed its readiness to respond. It summoned states to work together to bring the perpetrators to justice. Anyone aiding or harboring perpetrators, the Council resolved, would be held accountable. Citing the threat to international peace and security, it called on states to increase their efforts to prevent terrorist acts through cooperation and implementation of all relevant UN conventions and resolutions.

The same day, in the first resolution of its fifty-sixth session, the UN General Assembly condemned "the heinous acts of terrorism which have caused enormous loss of human life, destruction and damage." Addressing the Assembly, the US representative thanked state delegates for their support of the US-sponsored resolutions. "Yesterday’s attack" he told them, "requires that we choose sides between the values of human rights and democracy, held dear by all decent people, or terrorism and the law of the jungle".

I have no quarrel with the international community's formal condemnation of the attacks of 11 September. It is right that they should (although US government’s move to de-historicize the events of 11 September is as maddening as it is unsurprising). I am, however, outraged by the presumption with which the US immediately turned to the UN. Only a few days before, the US's tune had been significantly less concerned with internationalism. I am thinking, of course, of the US government’s ignominious exit from the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa.

Here's a compare and contrast exercise in volte face. When the US needed firm and unwavering commitment from the international community, this is what they were able to extract from the UN: "States will take all necessary steps. Perpetrators and their supporters will be held accountable. Threats to peace and security will be prevented. States will cooperate with international conventions." Responsibility. Accountability. Prevention. Cooperation. Security. Peace. Democracy. Justice.

Strong, action-oriented language like this was an endangered species at the WCAR, eliminated through a game of denial based on the principle of "lowest common denominator". The game went like this: Governments, under the guise of consensus, maneuvered to weaken the language of international and multilateral agreements so that the result were documents which, above all, favor (if not strengthen) the status quo. Consider that it was not until the final few hours of the WCAR that slavery was accorded the same "criminal" status as the attacks of September 11th.

Nowhere in the WCAR Declaration and Program of Action - the key "outcome document" produced at every world conference - is there language like "States will...." The strongest term to be found in either document is "urge." But this too was often weakened, as state delegates insisted on adding the term "consider", as in: the WCAR "urges States to consider taking steps to...." Although as of this writing the UN has not released the final WCAR documents, the "compromise" text regarding an apology for the injustices of slavery will read something like, "we apologize for this unfortunate event in the past". Compensation for slavery and the slave trade, it appears, is also embodied in this apology. In reaction to a proposal that everything that had not yet been resolved should be left out of the Declaration and Program of Action, several key issues were, in the end, not even officially named as problems associated with racism or discrimination. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, caste and sexual orientation were among the matters states failed to address in the final text.

Debates and negotiated texts at the WCAR also illustrate how neoliberal ideology has much to do with the process of codifying "problems" and "solutions". Akhil Gupta saw a similar process at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio where powerful states and international institutions tried to define the deteriorating environment -- rather than the consumption patterns of wealthy nations -- as the problem and promoting "sustainable development" via market forces as the solution.

Similarly, in Durban, the EU and the US rejected language calling on states to adopt codes of conduct, arguing that it was no longer the role of national governments to impose regulations on the private sector. Delegates from Caribbean countries reacted strongly to Canada’s contention that, because they are by definition "temporary" residents, social services such as education should not be provided to migrant workers’ families. Though ultimately futile, China fought hard to replace the term "good governance" with "transparent, responsible and participatory government", stating that it was during and after the Asian financial crisis that Western governments began citing the lack of "good governance" as a way to blame Asian and other governments for economic crises. This is a typical example of the so-called remedial action agreed to in Durban: the WCAR "urges" states to "encourage" the private sector media to promote "a voluntary ethical code of conduct and self-regulatory measures" to combat racial and ethnic stereotypes, and "to promote the fair, balanced and equitable representation of the diversity of their societies".

The past is an awkward country, particularly for the countries who would rather forget their complicity in atrocities there. For this reason, the Durban meeting was much like any other intergovernmental conference, in spite of -- rather, because of -- its historical mission. South Africa certainly provided a symbolically inspirational venue, as a country where so many had struggled and died to bring an end (at least formally) to one of the most horrific examples of institutionalized racism in history. The WCAR was an ambitious project, perhaps overly so given the track record of these sorts of intergovernmental jamborees. It was set to be the first intergovernmental forum to grapple with issues of contemporary racism and discrimination in the context of the past. In addition to the sources and causes of racism and discrimination, forms of remedy and redress (which included reparations and apologies) were to be considered in direct light of atrocities such as colonialism, slavery and the slave trade. Although a target of criticism by some activists because it might detract from issues relating specifically to race, the scope of the Durban meeting was also broadened, so that it included not only racism but also other forms of discrimination and intolerance.

It may have seemed that the WCAR was at least a little different from other intergovernmental conferences because the US was not there to manipulate these historical negotiations. In fact, the US government’s delegation was still very much present and influencing the course of the WCAR until day six of the eight-day conference. To be sure, Colin Powell never joined the parade of state dignitaries at the opening ceremonies. But the actual drafting of the Declaration and the Program of Action was, as is always the case, left to mid-level foreign ministry officials or career diplomats appointed to the UN, who negotiate text according to their governments’ strict mandates. Despite its much-publicized official denouncement of the world conference, the US government only withdrew its Washington, DC representatives, leaving behind its UN diplomats to participate fully in the consensus drafting process. In other words, the US managed to have its political cake and eat almost all of it, too.

Because they are founded on highly unequal relations of power, "consensus" becomes a slippery slope in forums like the WCAR. The undemocratic character of the Durban meeting was perhaps most evident in the practice of establishing smaller, ad hoc working groups to tackle the more controversial topics. As the days went on, more and more controversial issues were shunted to working groups, which met outside of the main drafting sessions. Smaller and impoverished states, with typically only two to three delegates, were prevented from taking part in many negotiations by dint of a low diplomatic body-count. Although smaller delegations lodged formal complaints regarding their inability to participate fully in the debates, and their concerns were acknowledged by the chairperson, they were ultimately left unaddressed, due to "time constraints". In other words, a lack of democracy was built-in to the WCAR process.

And what of "the people"? If anything should be noted about participation by "civil society" in the intergovernmental meeting, it is that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were made, in certain respects through their own faults, into a sideshow version of the WCAR. After five days of the largely elitist, unnecessarily chaotic and ultimately undemocratic NGO Forum (which will be the focus of Part Two) thousands of Forum participants were surprised to learn that their passes to the governmental WCAR merely gave them access to an exhibition center across the street from the main conference venue. They were free to chat amongst themselves and browse the booths of various governments, UN agencies and the UN’s "corporate partners".

Moreover, it was announced that only a thousand passes would be given to nongovernmental participants to attend the WCAR sessions. It was further stipulated that, if there were more than one thousand NGOs present -- which was the case -- then "large" organizations would each receive one pass, to be shared amongst their members. (No one in charge ever offered a definition of "large" or explained who got to define it.. Smaller NGOs, on the other hand, would have to "share" (read: fight over) the remaining passes. This not only severely restricted nongovernmental participation in the WCAR, it created friction among NGOs. In effect, it replicated the relations of power among states, since the larger NGO delegations came mostly from richer countries and enjoyed closer ties with agencies at the international level. This regional bias brought with it a racial as well as class bias.

History was repeating itself. A similar limit on passes was set at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, as well as at the 1995 Conference on Women in Beijing. At both of these meetings, however, NGOs protested until they were allowed full access. Debates about what "full access" implies in terms of actual influence aside, that NGOs chose not to protest this arrangement in Durban marks a precedent-setting step backwards in the role of nongovernmental actors in international conferences.

As it turned out, from what I observed, among those who did gain access to the WCAR, few used this privileged position to challenge the state process from within in qualitatively different terms and according to different principles. It was also this personal (though not exceptional) observation that reinforced my conviction, as I left Durban, that the system of states and the inherently undemocratic, exploitative principles undergirding it, had gotten a tremendous boost by convening this world conference.


Kelly Dietz went to Durban as part of a collective of 16 activists from 8 different countries. The group produced a daily newspaper during the WCAR and the NGO Forum. Part two of her report, which looks critically at the NGO Forum, will appear in a future instalment of the Turtle.




Copyright Policy Last modified: Tuesday, 05-Nov-2002 17:50:16 CST , Home About Contact Us