Who's a Racist? Can a UN Conference Decide?

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Slaves in chains on the island of Zanzibar in the 19th century

It's no surprise that the international community is having a little trouble agreeing on an agenda for a U.N. conference on racism in South Africa later this month.The event's spectacularly turgid title — the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance — captures some of the difficulty in achieving a consensus even over what to discuss, and, inevitably, to disagree on.

There is nothing quite as unacceptable today as racism, and if individuals wriggle and squirm when confronting their own racist demons, today's nation-states are even more averse — not least because an honest reckoning with the past carries some uncomfortable political and legal implications in the present.

Still, it's not something that any country can easily walk away from — not even a Bush administration that has made a habit of being the party pooper in international forums. There's a political cost, too, in being seen to duck a discussion of racism. Instead, the U.S. and some of its European allies are looking to make the menu more palatable. They want to expunge the two most controversial items: discussions of reparations for slavery and colonialism, and of Zionism as racism. Washington has warned that if those topics are still on the agenda come conference time, the U.S. seats will be empty.

The question of reparations

America tends to congratulate itself for its multicultural democracy, but it's never been comfortable discussing slavery. Even though few would argue against deeming slavery a crime against humanity, President Clinton found it politically untenable to apologize for it. And the very idea of compensation sends the U.S. political establishment into apoplexy. European states that would be implicated alongside the U.S. on slavery and by themselves on colonialism are backing Washington to the hilt. The best the descendants of those wronged can hope for, say U.S. diplomats, is a collective statement of regret.

It's easy to come up with myriad reasons why compensation is a can of worms, and would distract the conference from the urgent tasks of remedying and combating racism and allied evils in the 21st century. At the same time, it's also easy to understand the ire of those in the developing world pushing for such a discussion. People robbed, murdered or forced into slavery by the Nazis have been paid compensation by a generation of Germans who had nothing to do with those crimes; why, many Africans and their supporters ask, should the descendants of slavery in the Americas not be compensated for their suffering? And why should the European nations who grew rich off the resources they plundered from the colonies be excused from a discussion of compensation? To those at the wrong end of the global power equation, it looks as if the answer is simply that the people who made the rules to suit themselves back in the days of slavery and colonialism are still making the rules to suit themselves today.


"Zionism is racism" is different. It's something of a red herring, coming as it does a decade after the repeal of the U.N. resolution condemning the Jewish nationalist ideology that drove the creation of modern Israel. The issue has been revived for the racism conference in order to build diplomatic support for the plight of the Palestinians, and even a number of human rights groups fiercely critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians under occupation have warned that it's an inappropriate discussion that could derail the conference's objectives. Of course, that doesn't get Israel off the hook on the issue of racism. (Speaking personally, I can understand the impulse to question a principle that allows me, as a South African-born Jew who can trace his origins back into mediaeval Europe, the right of "return," but denies the same to a Palestinian colleague born there but forced to leave in 1948 — on the grounds that his return would ultimately endanger the Jewish character of the state. I know the answers to this question in the realm of realpolitik and history, but I can appreciate why many would consider it worthy of discussion at a conference on racism.)

The need for a global focus

Washington and the Europeans are certainly correct in insisting that the conference properly address its global mandate, rather than fixating on the issues of racism in Israeli-Palestinian relations at the expense of other issues. After all, the conference could just as easily spend a whole week discussing ethnic violence in Indonesia or the Balkans or Burundi or England, slavery in the Sudan or the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. And too much focus on the Middle East might even help some governments keep their own skeletons out of the limelight.

That said, it would also be a mistake for the Western governments to try and prevent discussion of the Middle East altogether, or walk out if anybody mentions Israel in an unfavorable light. Just as it would be a mistake to make for the exits if anyone mentions slavery or colonialism.

It's time to grow up and recognize that on the issue of racism, we live in a world covered in warts, scars and open wounds. Healing those is always going to hurt. In fact, unless a global discussion on racism is painful and uncomfortable, it's probably not getting anywhere.