Noise from the fringes Durban meet

By Anosh Malekar/Durban

Noise from the fringes Durban meet: The Dalits made themselves heard, but that was their only achievement at the UN conference on racism That terror struck the United States a couple of days after the third UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) concluded at Durban on September 8 showed that it ended with no victors. The scenes at Durban's International Conference Centre were tumultuous and the language was of hate. Angry Muslim nations lashed out at 'western powers' for manipulating the conference to "distribute their guilt over the holocaust". This followed the dramatic defeat of the Islamic bloc's attempt to get the conference to declare the Israeli occupation of Palestine "a racist act".

Clauses on the Middle East were thrown out of the final declaration after fierce opposition from the European Union and other allies, mainly from South America. The US, followed by Israel, had earlier walked out accusing the Islamic bloc of 'hijacking' the conference.

It was clear from day one of the meet that the Arab bloc was determined to fight a pitched battle on behalf of the Palestinians. The Africans came for an apology and reparations for past injustices. Europe was there to fend off their claims. Governments (like India) under pressure from the oppressed sections came to suppress references to atrocities.

Even before the conference began, the US and Israel were talking of withdrawing. Rather than enlightened governments and peoples (read NGOs) taking a stand against hate in the name of racism, caste-based discrimination or any other form, the conference appeared a minefield of geopolitics and subterfuge. Power blocs with narrow agendas coalesced, displaying little eagerness to find common ground.

It was a tense scene in stark contrast to South Africa's beautiful landscape, often compared to a Van Gogh painting! You just had to drive some 40 miles north of Durban on Route N2, heading from Umhlanga Rocks to Pongola, to view those sugar cane stalks dancing in the wind. But staying put in Durban, it felt incredibly tense. Partly because of the beefed up security to prevent muggings and stabbings—street crimes are a grim reality of Durban—and partly because of the United States' predictable withdrawal on September 3 over the Middle East friction.

As US delegates led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Southwick packed their bags, South African government spokesman Essop Pahad said: "The general perception among all delegates is that the US does not want to confront the real issue of slavery and all its manifestations."

The walkout, it was widely believed, was prompted by its fear of facing massive reparation claims for slavery of African Americans, though the world was told it was denouncing the draft declaration's 'hateful language' against Israel. Southwick called up UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and told her that his country had not really withdrawn from the conference. Rather, it had merely pulled back its Washington contingent and Durban Consul General Craig Kuehl would be the new head of the delegation.

Tension among the European Union group, too, was apparent and seemed to have grown with the US withdrawal. The United Kingdom, along with Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, resisted pressure for a full-scale apology for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and effects of colonialism.

The EU and the African bloc clashed on African demands for an apology and compensation for slavery and colonialism. In a last-minute compromise, western nations acknowledged that slavery and slave trade were "appalling tragedies in the history of humanity". They also agreed that the declaration should include a clause stating 'profound regret' for the suffering caused by colonialism.

"We cannot apologise as this has judicial implications [read financial compensation]," said a European diplomat. "We do accept that the colonial period led to a lot of suffering and we regret that. But that was another time in history."

Interestingly for India, the situation seemed to have provided its delegation the right opportunity to push the issue of caste-based discrimination under the carpet. It got the US and Israel to support its stand that caste was an "internal issue".

"We have succeeded in bracketing the section [where caste-based discrimination finds mention as "discrimination based on descent and work" in the UN document]," said Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah, who led the Indian delegation. He was referring to the UN General Assembly's draft programme of action, para 73, asking nations to prohibit and redress discrimination based on work and descent.

Addressing the plenary, Omar said India was committed to combating and eliminating discrimination in all its manifestations. "We are firmly of the view that the issue of caste is not an appropriate subject for discussion at this conference," he said. "We are here to ensure that there is no state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination against any individual citizen or groups of citizens. We are not here to engage in social engineering within member states. It is neither legitimate nor feasible nor practical for this world conference or, for that matter, even the UN to legislate, let alone police, individual behaviour in our societies."

The minister said the battle had to be fought within the respective societies to change thoughts, processes and attitudes. At the end of his speech Omar was booed by the Dalit NGO delegates, who had succeeded in gaining the attention of the international media. "We are struggling for human dignity," said Dalit activist Jyoti Raj. "On behalf of the Dalit caucus we ask for caste or work and descent based-discrimination to be included in the UN document."

Others like Paul Divakar of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) took a more pragmatic view. "The US and Israel may have sided with the Indian government, but we have strong supporters in Denmark, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, and the European Union nations," he said.

The issue of caste did not find a mention in the UN document in the end. "The outcome does not make any difference to us," said Paul. "Right from the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson and all the NGOs across the world, everyone knows that the Dalits are being discriminated against across Asia and parts of Africa." Reverend Bob Scott of the World Council of Churches, who has been a regular at the UN for over 25 years, agreed: "Twenty years ago, if you uttered the word Dalit at a UN conference, it was Latin to all us. Today everybody at the UN knows what a Dalit from India is!"

The Dalit caucus had more westerners than Indians. It lobbied hard during the initial days to pin down the Indian government but as the countdown began, they seemed to be resigned to let caste discrimination be seen as a global problem rather than an India-specific problem. Paul said that the NCDHR was upbeat over its success and was determined to strengthen the link between grassroots workers and international human rights mechanisms. "That is the only peaceful and democratic way to resolve the issues facing 160 million Dalits in India," he said.

But the democratic process at the UN itself was under fire from the developed world. The boycott threats pained Mary Robinson, who is also secretary-general of the conference. "There has to be some reference to the suffering of the Palestinians," she said. "But this conference is not about finger-pointing at any one country. The price of disappointment worries me greatly."

The US NGOs were greatly disappointed and demanded that they be allowed to take the vacant seats at the negotiations table. "We should find a mechanism to get in," said Robert Bullard of the National Black Environmental Justice Network at a protest outside the ICC. But that was demanding the impossible, considering Kofi Annan's dislike of unruly behaviour at UN forums as manifested at the pre-conference NGO forum plenary. "We came here to listen to each other and not to behave the way you are doing. There is no need for you as a mature person to shout at me," Annan had told a group of Dalit activists shouting in protest, after he refused to comment on MP Prakash Ambedkar's statement on the issue.

Ambedkar's statement referred to more than 200 million Dalits facing discrimination in Asia, Africa and Europe. He called for their inclusion in the UN's list of victims and the inclusion of caste on the agenda of the WCAR.

Annan, who had earlier evaded a straight question from a Dalit activist, heard Ambedkar and remarked, "That was a statement, requires no answer." The Dalits may not have got an answer to their problem from the UN. But they certainly had the eyes and ears of the delegates. And an important lesson to learn: shouting does not help. "What the Dalit groups failed to provide was a programme of action," remarked Congress leader Sushilkumar Shinde, himself a Dalit and member of the Indian official delegation. "They merely aired their grievances, which are known to their countrymen."

That could be the case with all marginalised and oppressed groups across the world, which came with great hopes to the UN forum but left frustrated. The voices of the Rastrafarians, Romas, native Americans, aborigines, Tibetans and the Dalits were lost in the rhetoric on Middle East. Their disillusionment was captured by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who threw up his hands and asked: "For goodness sake, can't you sit down and really talk?"

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Referred by:Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:sep 19, 2001
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