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WCAR: Ten Years Later

Dissident Voice Article

By Jehan Abad

The United Nations General Assembly, made up of 193 member states, will meet on September 22, 2011 at the UN headquarters in New York City to mark the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA). Containing a series of principles and proposals for fighting racism, the 62-page DDPA [PDF] was passed at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa/Azania.

Despite opposition from the imperialist countries led by the US, the 2001 WCAR became a flashpoint for focusing international attention on two issues: reparations for slavery and the liberation of Palestine. It involved a convergence of several events: the official meeting of member states that adopted the DDPA; the NGO Forum that approved a substantially stronger document (the WCAR NGO Forum Declaration); a two-day general strike led by COSATU against the privatization of social services in South Africa/Azania; and daily protest marches outside the conference venue regarding land reform, Palestine, and reparations. The government meeting was marked by a walkout of the US, Canadian, and Israeli delegations.

A 2009 review conference took place in Geneva, Switzerland following the 2001 WCAR and reaffirmed the DDPA. The US, Canada, Israel, and seven other rich countries boycotted this meeting as well.

Now, ten years after the Durban conference, delegates representing the member states of the UN will discuss the DDPA again – this time in Midtown Manhattan. The Obama administration, along with the governments of Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, Italy, and the Netherlands, have already announced plans to boycott the gathering. Combined with this boycott, the lackeys and mouthpieces of the US ruling class are already working to derail the conference with false charges of anti-Semitism and jingoistic references to the 9/11 attacks (see for example the 6/3 New York Daily News editorial “President Obama must organize an international boycott of obscene, anti-Semitic Durban III confab” which contains blatant falsehoods about the content of the DDPA).

Why Is the US Empire So Afraid?

The Obama administration’s decision to boycott the September 2011 conference in NYC was announced in a June letter from Joseph E. Macmanus, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, addressed to some members of Congress. The letter claimed that the US was boycotting, because the Durban and follow-up conferences have “included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism.”

Two years ago, the Obama administration released a more detailed press statement regarding its decision to boycott the 2009 review conference in Geneva. Titled “U.S. Posture Toward the Durban Review Conference and Participation in the UN Human Rights Council,” the statement opposed the reaffirmation of the DDPA and outlined the conditions for a document that would be tolerable to the US:

It must not single out any one country or conflict, nor embrace the troubling concept of “defamation of religion.” The U.S. also believes an acceptable document should not go further than the DDPA on the issue of reparations for slavery.

The Obama administration’s reasons for boycotting the September 2011 conference in NYC and the 2009 review conference in Geneva are pretenses for shutting down criticism of Israel. Out of 341 paragraphs, the DDPA contains four paragraphs on Palestine, hardly any “singling out” of the Zionist entity. To protect its attack dog in the Middle East, the US is once again resorting to the usual tactic of equating criticisms of Israeli settler-colonialism with anti-Semitism.

The Obama administration’s non-participation is not surprising or exceptional. It exposes the fact that this administration continues to carry out the strategic interests of the US ruling class in maintaining white supremacist national oppression inside the Empire and in dominating the people of the world.

The Bush administration deliberately sent a low-level delegation to the 2001 WCAR, which did not include secretary of state Colin Powell, and then recalled it in the middle of the conference. During the Carter and Reagan administrations respectively, the US boycotted the 1978 and 1983 World Conferences to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in Geneva, where UN member states condemned apartheid in South Africa/Azania as a crime against humanity and denounced Israel’s collaborative relationship with the apartheid regime.

Why is the US Empire so afraid of participating in UN-sponsored conferences on racism and racial discrimination? While the one-country-one-vote forum of the UN General Assembly is certainly more difficult to control than the UN Security Council or an exclusive gathering of the imperialist countries, most of the countries in the General Assembly are neocolonial states, run by local elites that play varying roles in administering imperialist relations. Thus, why does the US have such a record of non-participation?

First, there exist real contradictions in foreign policy between the US ruling class and certain dependent countries, even while the latter do not break fundamentally with the imperialist system and are not reliable allies of the peoples’ movements. Second, each of these UN-sponsored gatherings is a forum for shaping the views of people around the world, where peoples’ movements have the opportunity to influence international public opinion through militant street mobilizations outside conference venues.

Both of these factors contribute to the possibility of embarrassment and isolation at any UN function for the US ruling class, which sits at the head of a country with racism in its DNA. To paraphrase Mao, here is one arena where it is not the people who fear US imperialism, but it is US imperialism that fears the people of the world.

A Hard Look at the Text of the DDPA

The DDPA is not legally binding or enforceable under international law. It derives its authority from moral recognition and the commitment of UN member states to implement its provisions. As such, the struggle over the DDPA’s language is primarily an ideological struggle over how to understand history and our present conditions. Viewed in this way, it is a compromised text. The DDPA contains a few provisions that could be advances in the fight against racism if seized by the peoples’ movements, but embodies a capitulation to the imperialist countries in some other important ways.

The most important advance made in the text is the acknowledgement in Paragraph 13 that “slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade.” The term “crime against humanity” carries weight under international law and the recognition of slavery as such may have given a boost to reparations litigation. Yet, at the same time, the DDPA does not contain any language advocating reparations for slavery. It only expresses profound “regret” for slavery and states in Paragraph 100 that “some States have taken the initiative to apologize and have paid reparation, where appropriate, for grave and massive violations committed.” Beyond that, there are only general provisions discussing the right of all victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance to seek “just and adequate reparation.” Furthermore, the DDPA fails to similarly characterize colonialism as a “crime against humanity.” There is much further to push.

The four paragraphs discussing Palestine in the DDPA are even more timid. Paragraph 65 discussing the right of refugees to return voluntarily to their homes and properties provides no indication that it is addressing Palestinian refugees in particular. This should be contrasted with the declaration and programme of action adopted at the 1978 World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination which referred explicitly to the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe” – the name given to the 1948 mass expulsion): “the cruel tragedy which befell the Palestinian people 30 years ago and which the[y] continue to endure today – manifested in their being prevented from exercising their right to self-determination on the soil of their homeland, in the dispersal of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the prevention of their return to their homes, and the establishment therein of settlers from abroad.”

The leading provision Paragraph 63 simultaneously recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent state alongside “the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel.” The previous declarations and programmes of action adopted at the 1978 and 1983 World Conferences to Combat Racism did not condition the Palestinian right to self-determination on Israel’s security. In that respect, the DDPA is a step backward. Further, note that the text discusses the right of States to “security,” not people or populations, in effect codifying the existing states in the region. This is a predictable gesture in a document adopted by the UN member states, yet ironic in light of the North African and Arab democratic revolts. Finally, of course, UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which correctly identified Zionism as a form of racism and remained in place from 1975 to 1991, continues to set the bar in the struggle within the UN over the proper characterization of Israeli settler-colonialism and its ideology.

Build the People’s Movements; Isolate the US Imperialists

As September 22 approaches, working and oppressed people in the US Empire can draw lessons from past historic campaigns to bring the crimes of the US ruling classes before the UN. In 1951, Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson presented a petition to UN officials titled “We Charge Genocide” condemning the oppression of Black people in the US, reflected in the widespread practice of lynching. Malcolm X would again raise the call during the 1960s for Black people to use the UN as a forum to expose their oppression in the US. In 1970, the Young Lords and the Puerto Rican Student Union organized a march of 10,000 people to the UN demanding independence for Puerto Rico, the release of political prisoners, and an end to police violence. In 1979, the National Black Human Rights Coalition organized a 5,000-strong march to the UN, with the slogans “Black People Charge Genocide” and “Human Rights is the Right to Self-Determination.” There should be a renewed focus today on the UN as an important site of struggle for working and oppressed people in the US.

COSATU’s two-day general strike against neoliberal policies on the eve of the 2001 WCAR in Durban provides a powerful example of how peoples’ movements can utilize such international gatherings to their advantage. The September 22 meeting is taking place not only in the country that is the home base of the Empire, but in the city that is the heart of US finance capital. It is crucial for all working and oppressed people to mobilize for the Durban + 10 Coalition activities from September 18 through 22, especially any protest marches that are planned.

The movement for reparations in the US can broaden and deepen its forces by highlighting the survivals of slavery in the foundations of US society today and the failure of Reconstruction to fully uproot them. Mass incarceration. Racist policing. Schools that operate like jails. Disproportionate unemployment. Enduring Black poverty throughout the country and in the Black Belt south.

In the weeks leading up to the conference and during the days of scheduled activity, we must make clear that reparations for slavery, as well as one hundred years of semi-slave sharecropping and national oppression that continues to this day, is a just demand that exposes the true character of the US Empire. It is a demand that is central to the liberation of the Black nation and the right of Black people to self-determination everywhere. It is a demand for the global redistribution of wealth stolen by the Empire. Without it, socialism is impossible.

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