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Durban Review Conference: united against racism!

Civil Society Forum in Geneva 17-19 April 2009

In spite of manifold efforts to block it, to defame it, to characterize it at as a 'masquerade' and whatever else, the NGO Forum for the Durban Review Conference opened with an inspiring film on women's creativity in post-apartheid South Africa. This gave a beautiful introduction to the spirit of the NGO Forum held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, with nearly 20,000 participants--quite a contrast to Geneva in 2009, with only 400 participants.

Speakers warned against racist tendencies. Professor Doudou Diene from Senegal, former UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, voiced alarm that today academics can debate that Black people are 'intellectually inferior' to those of the White 'race', a long discredited concept said to have been revived recently by a Nobel laureate in medicine. He noted that all forms of racism are on the rise globally and deplored the lack of political will to confront it. As well, he called attention to the rise of Islamophobia and urged legislation against the incitement of racism and hatred that leads to violence.

Edna Poland from Brazil, a member of the Expert Group on the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), praised the very positive results of Durban 2001. Unfortunately, they had been practically set aside by the tragic events of September 11th, immediately following the conference. "We are now struggling within a very limited space", she said, and further barriers are being put up to even narrow this space. Those who are promoting racism accuse others of being racists.

She characterised the confrontational nature of the preparatory process for this UN Review Conference, as a kind of "guerrilla war" between the European group (including the U.S. and Israel) and the Muslim world plus Africa and some parts of Asia. As example, she cited the Europeans' efforts to denounce every call for legislation to prohibit incitement of racial hatred as an infringement on 'freedom of expression'.

Women with such different perspectives as Malaak Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, and that of Senator Anne Mary Lizin, honorary president of the Belgian Senate, closed the evening event expressing their profound wishes that the forthcoming UN Review Conference should be successful and should build on the landmark provided by the 2001 Durban Conference. Ms. Shabazz expressed her strong desire that the U.S. government, whose president she had helped to elect, should participate, in vain. The U.S. (which had walked out of the 2001 conference) in 2009 decided to boycott it.

At Saturday's opening session human rights activist Mireille Fanon Mendes, Frantz Fanon's daughter, urged cutting through false and distorted notions. There are states that produce racist laws under the cover of denouncing racism, she said. This is incompatible with the UN Charter and humanitarian law.

Professor Yash Tandon, a Ugandan citizen of Indian origin, referred to his book Reflections and Foresight on Development and Globalisation: Daring to think different (South Centre, Geneva 2009), in which he describes all colonial settler regimes as racist and in total opposition to the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would mean trivialising the meaning of the colonial settler regime in Israel if one only reflected on it with reference to the influence of a 'Zionist lobby' in the U.S. It was, he said, to be referred to within the anti-colonial revolutionary process that again was to be understood within the framework delivered by the French Revolution and its ideas of basic human rights. Such a moral framework, if taken seriously, would make settler colonialism that has always been directed against indigenous populations morally inacceptable. It was clear that the situation of the Palestinian people and that of reparations for colonial exploitation and enslavement of entire populations were for him burning and related issues.

Karl Flecker of the Canadian Labour Union Congress reflected on the social and economic issues linked to the question of racism. Nimalka Fernando from Sri Lanka, president of the International Movement against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism, described worsening of the very exploitative labour conditions in the South. Discussions throughout the weekend included the expression of strong concerns about increasing acts of xenophobia against migrant workers and their families as well as against asylum seekers. The incitement to hatred based on religious beliefs, in particular the serious increase in Islamo-phobia, was condemned as was anti-Semitism.

A well-attended workshop on the Plight of the Palestine People provided first-hand information on the situation in Gaza from Charles Dedon (former director of Geneva Civil Defense) and Dr. Saad Elnounoun (French expert in human health), representing an international civil defence organisation.

The "Independent Jewish Voices" from Canada were among those participating in the NGO Forum who felt strongly about the need to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people. They also expressed their opposition to 'Zionist and pro-Israeli groups coming to Geneva on April 20th, working to derail this crucially important conference in the name of observing the holocaust'. These Canadian Jews were not the only ones who felt 'alarmed by the escalating use of intimidation and fear tactics by some prominent Jewish organisations to distract attention from Israel's flagrant violations of international humanitarian law'.

Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general, spoke at the final session of the conference, which had been organized by a group of NGOs including World Against Racism Network, with active participation by Krishna Ahoojapatel and Edith Ballantyne of WILPF.

From report by Irene Eckert, German WILPF, with contributions by Maria Jomaa, Geneva intern
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Author:Eckert, Irene
Publication:International Peace Update
Article Type:Conference news
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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