Background Release

28 August 2001


DURBAN, 27 August -- The World Conference against Racism will take place in Durban, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September, with progress having been made on some of the key issues before it, including questions related to slavery, identification of the victims of racism and the Middle East.

Known formally as the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the event provides an opportunity for the world to engage, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, in a broad agenda to combat racism and related issues.

As all countries have issues of racism and xenophobia to address, governments will have the opportunity to demonstrate their recognition of this fact and their determination to improve the situation. The Conference’s objectives are to produce a declaration that recognizes the damage caused by past expressions of racism and that reflects a new global awareness of modern forms of racism and xenophobia; to agree on a strong practical programme of action and to forge an alliance between governments and civil society that will carry the fight against racism forward.

Delivering a statement during a final round of preparatory discussions in Geneva on 9 August, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who is also Secretary-General of the Conference, said that important provisions of the draft declaration and action programme were already the subject of agreement. Informal processes were also underway to deal with sets of difficult issues related to slavery, identification of the victims of racism and the Middle East.

Victims of inequality and injustice from around the world would be pressing their cases at the Conference, she said. Intensive discussions on how to recognize the victims had made substantial headway. "What is at issue here is identifying those victims whose plight requires international recognition and cooperation," she added.

On issues related to the Middle East, the source of much discussion in the lead up to the Conference, Mrs. Robinson said flexibility was being shown in the search for compromise language. "One thing I would like to reaffirm is that there is a clear understanding that the formulation ‘Zionism equals racism’ has been done away with", she added.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, keenly aware of the sensitive nature of all the issues, said on 30 July: "We need a Conference and a Declaration that will look unflinchingly at every society in the world, and at those flaws which exacerbate, rather than eliminate conflicts rooted in race and ethnicity."

In an address to the National Urban League in Washington, D.C., Mr. Annan argued that "We need to acknowledge the tragedies of the past but not become captive to them." The months preceding the Conference had opened deep fissures concerning delicate questions such as the legacy of slavery, colonialism and the situation in the Middle East, he added.

The Secretary-General stressed the need for common ground, saying that if the Conference was to succeed, it "must help heal old wounds without reopening them; it must confront the past, but most importantly it must help set a new course against racism in the future."

It is expected that more than 15 heads of State and government and more than 12,000 representatives from 194 States and non-governmental organizations will participate in the Conference, although most countries will be represented by Cabinet Ministers or other senior national representatives. Among others represented will be United Nations specialized agencies and commissions and regional and non-governmental organizations.

In the run-up to the World Conference, a series of regional meetings and expert seminars were held in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas beginning in July 2000. They preceded the three Preparatory Committee sessions held in Geneva from May to August earlier this year.

Conference Agenda

Five main themes form the core of the Conference's agenda for Durban: sources, causes, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism; victims; measures of prevention, education and protection aimed at the eradication of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance at the national, regional and international levels; provision for effective remedies, recourse, redress (compensation) and other measures at all levels; and strategies to achieve full and effective equality, including international cooperation and enhancement of United Nations and other international mechanisms.

According to Mrs. Robinson, the Conference would confront traditional forms of racism and the plight of groups at particular risk: indigenous peoples, ethnic, religious and cultural minorities. She said the Conference would, at the same time, break new ground by considering victims who had not received much attention at previous international events: refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, the Roma, Sinti and Traveller communities; trafficked persons; and those of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Heads of State and government attending the Conference have been invited to participate in a round table, which will help focus the debate on the critical issues for discussion. Many side events are also being organized to give expression to a range of views on issues and challenges.

Mrs. Robinson expressed optimism as the Conference Preparatory Committee concluded its final session. "The terminology we eventually adopt will constitute one of the major advances of the Durban Conference and the current session of the Preparatory Committee reflects a change in the atmosphere and the spirit presiding over the preparations for the Conference," she said.

She reported significant progress on the most sensitive issues in the draft official documents, saying there had been notable progress on the terms and language used in the identification and description of the victims of racism as well as in the language used to evoke the past.

"An example of the advances being made is the progress registered today in regard to language on indigenous peoples, on migrants and on Africans and persons of African descent," Mrs. Robinson said. "I note that progress has been made on finding appropriate language to recognize the victims of inequality and injustice," she added.

Draft Declaration

The draft declaration before the Conference includes a number of provisions already approved during the preparatory process.

Expressing its solidarity with the peoples of Africa in their continuing struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, the second Preparatory Committee recognized their sacrifices as well as their efforts in raising international public awareness of those inhuman tragedies.

Among other positions approved during the preparatory process was the third session's strong condemnation of continuing slavery and slavery-like practices in parts of the world and its affirmation of the urgent need to prevent, combat and eliminate all forms of trafficking in persons, particularly women and children, and its recognition that such victims were particularly exposed to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

The third session further recognized that migration had increased as a result of globalization, particularly from the South to the North, and highlighted the importance of creating conditions conducive to greater harmony, tolerance and respect between migrants and the rest of society. Underlining that family reunification had a positive effect on integration, it emphasized the need for States to facilitate family reunion.

Draft Programme of Action

Regarding victims of racism, the document urges States to facilitate the participation of people of African descent in all political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society and in the advancement and economic development of their countries and promote a greater knowledge of respect for their heritage and culture. It requests States to increase public actions and policies in favour of women and young males of African descent, given that racism affects them more deeply, placing them in a more marginalized and disadvantaged situation.

The draft programme further urges States to work with indigenous peoples to stimulate and increase their access to economic activities and level of employment, through the establishment, acquisition or expansion by indigenous people of enterprises, and implementation of such measures as training, provision of technical assistance and credit facilities.

Regarding migrants, the draft programme requests all States to combat manifestations of a generalized rejection of migrants and actively to discourage all racist demonstrations and acts that generate xenophobic behaviour and negative sentiments towards, or rejection of, migrants.

It encourages States to promote education on the human rights of migrants and to engage in information campaigns to ensure that the public receives accurate information regarding migrants and migration issues, including the positive contribution of migrants to the host society and the vulnerability of migrants.

On measures of prevention, education and protection, the draft programme urges States, both at national and international levels, to adopt and implement effective measures and policies, in addition to existing anti-discrimination national legislation and relevant international instruments and mechanisms, which encourage all citizens and institutions to take a stand against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

It also urges governments to recognize, respect and maximize the benefits of diversity within and among all nations in working together to build a harmonious and productive future by putting into practice and promoting values and principles such as justice, equality and non-discrimination, democracy, fairness and friendship, tolerance and respect within and between communities and nations, in particular through public information and education programmes.

Early United Nations Efforts

The Durban Conference comes in the wake of 50 years of international anti-racism activity, beginning with the adoption of the United Nations Charter in 1945. Other major milestones include the General Assembly's adoption of the Universal declaration on Human Rights in 1948; the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1963; and the focus during the 1960s on ending racial discrimination in Non-Self-Governing Territories as a natural result of decolonization.

As the international community's latest effort in the unending struggle against all forms of racism, the World Conference will require, in the words of Mrs. Robinson, a strong follow-up mechanism to examine whether Governments have delivered on the promises made at the dawn of the new millennium.

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Durban, South Africa
31 August - 7 September 2001