U.S. Walks Out of World Conference Against Racism

U.S. Shame in Durban

Revolutionary Worker #1118, September 16, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

For more than a week in the beginning of September, the delegates of over 160 governments and some 4,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) gathered in the South African port city of Durban for the United Nations-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR).

Meanwhile, people had come from distant corners of the world to speak bitterness in the streets and countless forums--to expose modern-day slavery, U.S.-funded death squads, poverty, and racist discrimination of many kinds, in a world where the rich heartlessly rob the poor. Demonstrations and parallel conferences demanded reparations for the crimes of slavery and colonialism.

Even before the conference started, the U.S. government decided not to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to Durban--saying they didn't want to legitimize this world gathering by having him attend. A low-level delegation was sent instead, to join the European and Israeli delegations in obstructing any forceful resolutions on Israel, slavery and modern racism. Then, after the conference had barely started, the U.S. delegation walked out on September 4--saying it could not tolerate discussion where Israel's intensifying brutality against Palestinian people was being condemned.

There was another reason for this U.S. walkout: the U.S. government knew there would be discussion of racism in the U.S.--discussion about racial profiling and the death penalty, the roundups of Black and Latino kids for prisons, and the systematic mistreatment of Native peoples. And they decided to leave before their long criminal record of past slavery and modern national oppression could be paraded before the world.

The third issue that gripped the conference was how to deal with the history and legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The U.S. was not willing to consider any statement that would be taken as an apology for the slave trade and the whole history of slavery in the U.S. And the major European powers--who stayed at the conference--issued a statement of "profound regret" about the slave trade. But they were not willing to acknowledge, in any way, that their power and wealth today are rooted in that history.

Half of Africa's people, around 340 million people, live on less than $1 per day. Life expectancy at birth is only 54 years and the deepening AIDS epidemic is driving that number down.

But the European and American imperialists refused to admit that they are responsible in any way for this suffering and poverty of today. And these powers, who are still energetically draining the resources, labor and funds from the third world, were not willing to discuss debt cancellation, construction of the African infrastructure, or other forms of reparations.

The conference remained deadlocked. And when, on the last day, conference organizers forced through closing resolutions--those documents only revealed an inability to agree on the most burning issues of today. The closing documents vaguely mentioned "the plight of the Palestinians under foreign occupation" but did not mention Israel (which is responsible for that "plight"). The document said "slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so," while using only vague phrases for issues of responsibility.

At its end, this conference stood as starkly divided as this starkly divided world.

Speaking Truth about Israel

"Zionism espouses exclusivist Jewish entitlement to my homeland: Any Jew has the automatic right to return and settle in Israel. My relatives who were kicked out of their homeland in 1948 cannot. If that is not racism, what is?"

Letter in the New York Times, September. 5, 2001

The original draft resolution presented to the conference expressed "deep concern" at the "increase of racist practices of Zionism and anti-Semitism" and spoke of the emergence of "movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas, in particular the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority." It made direct criticisms of Israeli repression against the Palestinians on the West Bank as a "new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity."

The U.S. and Israeli delegates fumed that such charges are absurd, perverse, intolerable...blah, blah, blah. And at the first opportunity, they walked out.

But, really, what can be said about this resolution language except that it is measured and true?

It is completely fair to compare Israel's occupation of Palestine with South African apartheid. Israel is a colonialist settler state, just like South Africa. Israel dominates the Palestinian fragments of land in Gaza and the West Bank in a way very similar to the way South Africa's Grand Apartheid dominated and exploited the "tribal homelands" called bantustans. These facts must have been hard to miss in Durban itself, where the African people remember well how they were driven from their land, how their communities were bulldozed, and how armed forces murdered them to defend the security of settler enclaves.

There are other comparisons from history that are also relevant:

The life of Palestinians in besieged enclaves brings to mind the Jewish ghettos in Poland when they were completely encircled by Nazi checkpoints. Who can be unmoved when for Palestinians the daily threat of death and invasion frame every thought for the future?

When one hears reports about the brutal policy of "collective punishment" carried out by Israel's troops--tearing down hundred-year-old olive groves and bulldozing villages--one can't help but wonder if they have completely forgotten how the Nazis carried out similar policies of "collective punishment" during World War 2.

Palestine's lopsided war of artillery and jets against rocks and makeshift explosives brings to mind all those other lopsided and unjust colonial wars--when modern armed forces sought to break the will of peoples throughout the world or (failing that) simply wiped them out.


The modern white supremacy and racism are deeply entwined with European and American colonialism. Centuries of expansionist wars against third world peoples were justified by claiming that Europe and North America were culturally superior over their victims and that their god had given them dominion over foreign lands. Zionist justifications for the state of Israel are taken whole cloth from this racist and colonialist logic. And there is a murderous sense of supremacy and entitlement evident everywhere in Israel's politics and the apologetics of its supporters.

Some people (who have taken a lot of heat in the Jewish community for their opposition to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank) have argued that it is wrong to charge Israel with racism because Israel is "one of the most multiethnic societies in the world." "It is...a state for those who have accepted Judaism," argues Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, "But that includes black Jews from Ethiopia, Jews from India and China who bear all the racial characteristics of people in those societies, Jews who escaped persecution in Arab lands and are racially indistinguishable from Arab Muslims."

This argument completely shines on the reality that racism is not just a matter of skin color but is a popular term for national oppression--the oppression and discrimination against a whole people as a people--and the system of social, ideological, and military controls imposed on these oppressed nationalities by dominating powers. And it is shameful to argue that Israel is a state "for those who have accepted Judaism" and to deny that the Palestinians have been oppressed and dispossessed as a people by the Zionist state.

No Liberation from a Talk Shop

The Durban conference was controlled by the ruling classes of the world, not the people. The United Nations, which organized the conference, has made itself notorious over the last decade: providing a cover for U.S. invasions in the Gulf and Balkans. Many of the third world governments there are rather notorious for being running dogs of imperialism--and are themselves oppressors of their people. The representatives of Turkey's harsh government did not want discussion of its brutal war on the Kurds. The representatives of India's expansionist central government did not want discussion of the still-entrenched feudal caste system. Some of the Arab governments who denounced Israel in Durban have not broken relations with Israel in real life. And so on.

But for all that, this deadlocked drama drove home some very basic truths about our world:

The systematic oppression of whole countries and nationalities--and the accompanying ideologies of white supremacy and cultural superiority--are very real on the planet today.

These crimes are vigorously defended--precisely because they remain so highly profitable and central to today's imperialist world order.

And the injustice that literally billions of people face will not ever be ended by diplomacy or hairsplitting resolutions of corrupt governments.

Colin Powell, the first Black Secretary of State for the U.S., has been promoted as a sign of "how far the U.S. has come." But the fact that he could not even come to Durban, and his flunkies could not stay in Durban--shows who and what a Colin Powell serves. The U.S. is the backbone force for modern imperialism, white supremacy, neocolonialism and discrimination--no matter what its current top officials may look like.

In many ways, deadlock and walkout are one of the better outcomes possible for this UN conference. The diplomats did not succeed in pretending that "the lion now lies down with the lamb."

Until the day comes when the imperialists can't walk out and go on with their plunder--until the day comes when the defenders of this world order are cornered, defeated and overthrown by those who they oppress--then none of this racism, poverty, white supremacy, inequality and neocolonialism will end.

If these are the lessons that get carried away from the deadlocked diplomacy and disruption of Durban--then we say "well done!"

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