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WCAR Agenda Still in Dispute

by Frances M. Beal Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2001 at 6:10 PM

The Geneva preparatory meeting for the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) has come and gone and the brackets are still there. Brackets around language in the draft document indicate that the various governments have not agreed to the specified phrase or wording.

WCAR Agenda Still in Dispute

By Frances M. Beal

The Geneva preparatory meeting for the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) has come and gone and the brackets are still there. Brackets around language in the draft document indicate that the various governments have not agreed to the specified phrase or wording. As expected, many states capitulated to the heavy pressure exerted by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to withdraw their support for defining Zionism as a form of racism. Unexpectedly, however, on the question of reparations, the African and Caribbean states are standing firm on including wording describing slavery as a crime against humanity meriting reparations. Despite this diplomatic defeat, it is unlikely that the U.S. will boycott the conference as threatened. It is more likely that the U.S. will downgrade its participation by sending in a second string delegation.

Some observers are speculating, however, that more than their opposition to reparations has been displeasing to the Bush Administration regarding the upcoming United Nations gathering. Point 8 of the Draft Programme of Action is a case in point. It reads as follows:

"Urges States to pay specific attention to the negative impact of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on the administration of justice and fair trial and to conduct nationwide campaigns, amongst other measures, to raise awareness among State organs and public officials concerning their obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other relevant instruments."

This language was adopted by the working group responsible for the Programme of Action, and on its face, could hardly be opposed by the U.S. delegation. However, it poses a big problem to U.S. assertions that racism is no longer institutionalized and any manifestations are vestiges from a past era. The source of their chagrin is the existence of a broad range of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) from the U.S. who plan to make the racist criminal justice system the centerpiece of their participation in the parallel NGO conference and in influencing the final U.N. government document.

Deborah Small, Public Policy Director at the Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation, is an example of what the U.S. will be facing in Durban. "The drug war is one of the most serious obstacles to achieving racial justice both in the U.S. and internationally," she says. In an effort to put pressure on U.S. policymakers, she is part of a Campaign to End Race Discrimination in the "War on Drugs", an ad-hoc coalition of drug policy reform advocates that call for "an end to the apartheid-like American criminal justice system" which is "fueled" by the war on drugs. During the Durban gathering, the Campaign will be presenting to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan a sign-on letter calling on leaders in the African Diaspora and the international community at large to voice their opposition to the racist pursuit of the U.S.-led war on drugs. That letter carefully delineates the disparate impact on Blacks and Latinos of this racialized battle. It concludes by calling upon Annan and all the member governments of the United Nations to place this issue on the its agenda for "open and free discussion."

Along with hundreds of other groups, the Black Radical Congress has pulled together a national delegation and will be working with organizations like Critical Resistance to present workshops, roundtables and seminars on their national campaign "Education Not Incarceration, Fight the Police State" and the burgeoning prison industrial complex. Their purpose is to place before the worldwide racial justice movement not only the facts pointing to a racist criminal justice system, but how this social policy of criminalizing social ills reflects the U.S. face of neoliberalism in the context of globalization: Repression and Racism.

Another issue that displeases the U.S. but which may provide a venue for a loosening of the Bush Administration's rigidity is its total isolation on the question of the death penalty. The racial composition of death row inmates can hardly be ignored in this international gathering. There is surely a lesson (and possibly a benefit) in the international pressure that has recently been placed on the U.S. These include the isolation of the U.S. and its retrenching on global warming, small arms, biological warfare, the Ant-Ballistic Missile treaty. Some activists are speculating that in this context, it is possible to make significant advances in Durban on the question of racism. How? The struggle around the death penalty suggests that those who fail to take into account global factors when plotting domestic strategy are making a profound blunder: 'globalization' is not merely an economic phenomenon, it is also political. It is evident that the international movement has been essential in preventing Bush and the U.S. ruling elite from moving as far to the right as they would like. Hence, Durban could provide an opportunity to take advantage of this global momentum for domestic gain.

Black activists are beginning to pack their bags in order to seize this moment to expose the ongoing failure of the U.S. to comply with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it ratified in 1994. They insist that the world must know that the U.S. is one of the leading sites of human rights abuses as indicated by a vast network of prisons filled disproportionately with Blacks and Latinos, and which creates a climate that not only sanctions but encourages rape and various sadistic abuses of male and female prisoners' rights.

It is perhaps cynical to suggest that the U.S. never wanted to participate in the World Conference Against Racism and used the issue of reparations to make an organized retreat from the battlefield. But then again, maybe not so cynical after all.

Frances M. Beal is a political columnist for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper and National Secretary of the Black Radical Congress. Contact or

Article published to Indymedia with permission of the author.

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