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"Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye: Durban and Beyond,"

by Wade Henderson January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

It’s been only a few months since the tragedy of September 11, but it’s already cliché to suggest to those of us who live in this country how deeply the events of that day have affected our lives and seared our psyches. We know firsthand that the magnitude of loss is a grievous blow, both in lost lives and lost political innocence. And as if that weren’t disconcerting enough, we now find ourselves thrust into the global “war against terrorism,” a new kind of conflict with uncertain targets and even more uncertain consequences beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Did I forget to mention that we’re simultaneously fighting a bio-terrorist attack of anthrax, which may be related to these events or may be from a domestic source?

America is at war; and Americans are on edge! Not surprisingly, public attention is turned to the economic recession and important questions of national security and the newly designated homeland defense. Unfortunately, questions regarding civil liberties, human rights and policies affecting the broader domestic agenda are being forced into the back-of-the-bus at their time of greatest need.

One of the most frequently asked questions in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attack was, “Why do the terrorists hate us?” And not unexpectedly, the immediate reaction of many Americans seemed based on anger and patriotic pride, not analysis: “There can be no adequate explanation for such a heinous act!” “We stand for freedom, and they resent it.” There is truth in these statements, but being right is not always enough. If our nation is to overcome the challenges of the moment and move to a long-term solution to the problem of global terrorism, we will need a deeper, more perceptive analysis to help explain the hostility we encounter in many parts of the developing world.

Among the casualties of September was a serious examination of an issue that may have helped to answer the difficult question of “why they hate us,” and more importantly, to point the way to solutions to the problem.

The United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR) ended in Durban, South Africa, just two days before that fateful September morning. Controversial from its inception, marred by a walk-out of the United States and Israeli delegations because of disagreements over the language in the proposed conference texts, the WCAR nonetheless defied expectations by securing an agreement among the over 160 nations present to tackle the global phenomenon of racial and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia.

Over a two-week period in late August, thousands of civil and human rights activists, together with governmental leaders from around the world, assembled in Durban with the express purpose of tackling one of the most intractable global barriers to the fulfillment of universal human rights. This was the third UN world conference to examine problems of racial discrimination, but only the first one to examine issues internal to each member nation. As might be imagined, there was great hypocrisy among many member nations that were able see discrimination in the lands of their neighbors, but were blind to the problems at home. Slavery in the Sudan, for example, comes readily to mind. Nonetheless, the WCAR was a boon to previously marginalized groups across a broad spectrum. Groups like the Dalits of India and South Asia, the Roma of Europe, the Afro-Brazilians and other African-descendent Latinos, and Indigenous peoples of North and South America all benefited from this new global exposure.

Durban was also a significant advancement for African-descendent peoples from around the globe. As we know from our own experience in the United States, the issue of slavery continues to haunt any serious discussion about contemporary questions of race relations, both in the black/white context, but also in the shifting racial paradigm brought about by immigration and the emergence politically of the Latino and Asian communities. The WCAR was quite simply the first UN-sponsored proceeding to formally recognize the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself as crimes against humanity. This extraordinary development sets the stage for internal challenges by citizens against their own countries for the continuing deprivations caused by slavery and race-based discrimination. A nascent political movement in support of reparations for slavery was already under way in the United States and elsewhere, but thanks to the WCAR, real fuel has now been added to the fire.

While few in the United States expect the reparations movement to bear fruit quickly (some skeptics say, if at all), its intensity is growing, driven by a convergence of events that have added legitimacy and urgency to the debate. These include the precedents set by government reparations to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II and the over $7 billion in compensation paid to Jewish, Roma, gay and other victims of the Nazi genocide; the historic findings of state legislatures in Florida and Oklahoma for the destruction of black communities by racist vigilantes in Rosewood, FL and Tulsa, OK in the early 1920’s; the general frustration in the African American community over continuing attacks and erosion of race-based affirmative action policies and the strong desire for bolder policy on eradicating the continuing effects of racial discrimination; the publication of Randall Robinson’s The Debt, which is stimulating debate on college campuses; and lastly, a proposed lawsuit by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and his legal brain-trust on behalf of an as yet unspecified class of black plaintiffs.

One might legitimately ask if Durban was such a positive experience, why has press coverage of the event been so decidely negative? And what about race relations in the United States? How have they been affected by Durban?

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the principal organizer of the WCAR, spoke to this issue at a recent UN Forum titled “News vs. Propaganda: The Gatekeeper’s Dilemma.” Ms. Robinson responded to criticism of the WCAR, which she said had been described as a well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed, event. She noted that the conference had been an empowering tool for many groups, but that their stories had been overshadowed by the media’s coverage of the Middle East issue that dominated the conference. Karen Curry, Vice-President and New York Bureau Chief of CNN said CNN, made great efforts to cover the conference in its breadth. That breadth, however, included coverage of a very legitimate new story: the walk-out of the United States and Israeli delegations and the issue of Zionism. However, Hafez Al Mirazi, Washington Bureau Chief of Al Jazeera, said he felt some of the Western media coverage was decidedly biased, matching the attitudes of their governments that the situation in the Middle East should not have been discussed specifically in Durban.

As a “non-governmental organization” (NGO) representative in Durban on behalf of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCRR), I believe there is general agreement with Mary Robinson’s observations. However, the problems of the WCAR were not merely inventions of the press. The rising tide of incivility at the WCAR that focused largely on the Middle East conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was destructive and contributed greatly to the problems of the conference. Moreover, anti-Semitic statements and activities, particularly in the NGO forum, were repugnant and should have been broadly condemned by the NGOs. The failure to do so only served to legitimize the US government’s decision to walk out of the WCAR. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, for example, said he had instructed the US delegation to return home, citing “hateful language” proposed for the final conference statement. He said they had made the decision “with regret,” but had become convinced that a successful conference “would [will] not be possible.”

The NGO coordinators of the conference failed to understand and to guarantee that while vigorous and open debate on important civil and human rights issues is vital, it must be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the rights of others and of the underlying spirit of the WCAR. In this regard, the NGO organizers failed miserably in their responsibility to protect the integrity of the WCAR.

In the final analysis, however, some continue to believe that the US withdrawal from the WCAR was premature and unwarranted. In fact, the US departure foreclosed our nation’s ability to be a part of the ongoing process to improve conference language at the time when our intervention might have proven fruitful. And in the end, the official governments’ Statement of Principles and Plan of Action contained none of the offending language that had been the stated basis of the US–Israeli withdrawal. This fact alone has caused some in the African-descendent Diaspora to believe that the real motivation for the US action was its deeply held refusal to discuss reparations for slavery.

What does this entire debate mean for race and ethnic relations among groups in the United States? After all, thousands of US NGOs came to Durban with measured expectations of progress. In fact, the LCCR’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic delegation reflected not only the diversity of America today, it was a bold effort built on the coalition model to advance a global civil and human rights agenda. And, as previously noted, some issues enjoyed a major breakthrough, notwithstanding the US walk-out. However, the WCAR did leave the representatives of two allied groups with a need to deconstruct what happened in Durban and with an eye toward future action.

Blacks and Jews remain close allies in the social justice movement in the United States. However, the tensions unleashed in Durban between representatives of African-descendent organizations, whose quest for progress on the reparations issue caused them to fully embrace the WCAR, and representatives of Jewish organizations, whose concerns about anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel, caused them to discredit it, continue to reverberate in post-Durban conversations about where we go from here. What is needed is an honest dialogue and rapprochement that recognizes the differences in perspectives on Durban and seeks to repair the potential breach. After all, who should better understand the important concept of reparations than the American Jewish community; and who should better understand the fear and anxiety of anti-Semitism than African Americans, who have experienced among the worst forms of racism and discrimination?

And if, in the final analysis, when looking through the prism of September 11, the United States can shift from its position as a unilateralist superpower that rejected the value of the United Nations into becoming a multilateralist state that works in coalition with others, then surely anything is possible, even a shared view of the WCAR between blacks and Jews.

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, and the Joseph L. Rauh Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of the District of Columbia Law School.


Wade Henderson (, a former PRRAC Board member, is the Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Counsel to the Leadership Conference Education Fund. The LCCR is the nation’s premiere civil and human rights coalition. Henderson was instrumental in sending a delegation of leading civil rights experts to the WCAR.


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