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The different shades of hatred

Xenophobia, one of the major causes of intolerance driven by racism, and the related issue of asylum-seekers, has hardly figured at the Durban Conference, writes M. S. Prabhakara.

THE WORLD Conference against Racism, scheduled to conclude on the afternoon of September 7 with the adoption of its two major documents - a Declaration and a Programme of Action - went on late into the night and extended to an unscheduled ninth day of deliberations. The unresolved deadlock on the two most contentious issues in the Documents has come in the way of their adoption.

These, described by the Conference officials as the `difficult issues', are slavery, slave trade and colonialism, characterised in the Draft Documents as `crimes against humanity', and apology and reparations from those counttries that engaged in and profited from these practices; and the formulations on Palestine and Israel and the larger dispute between political Zionism and Palestinian nationalism deeply rooted in history.

Late on Friday night there were indications of a possible breakthrough, with a carefully-worded compromise in `acceptable language' worked out by a core group on the issues of slavery and related matters, though not on apology. This is still to find acceptance on all sides. Some of the changes proposed give a flavour of the diplomatic and verbal skills that are being exercised: `remedial measures' in place of `reparations'; no `debt cancellation' but only `debt relief', and so on. Even this kind of a breakthrough is not evident in the matter relating to Israel and Palestine.

It is easy to be cynical about the WCAR. Like all such international conferences, the proceedings have been marked by much verbiage, a lot of it of the indigestible kind. The result of all these deliberations were two documents: One, a Draft Declaration, comprising 43 preliminary paragraphs (PP) in the nature of a Preamble, articulating the ideas and sentiments that have driven the holding of such a Conference, followed by another 142 paragraphs, in the nature of a declaration of intent on the issues encapsulated in the full title of the Conference. Two, a Programme of Action.

The Secretary-General of the Conference, Ms. Mary Robinson, has only been saying that the Conference officials and delegates are working hard to achieve a consensus on the language of these formulations - a fairly typical fetish with words which seek to gloss over the historically entrenched antagonisms between political Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.

South Africa, as the host, is striving hard to secure a consensus on these issues, though till now not with much success. The apparent unity of purpose that South Africa had forged with other African countries seems to have collapsed, with only South Africa prepared to climb down on the demand for an unqualified apology for slavery, slave trade and colonialism.

For a Conference with such a broad theme and wide ranging concerns, it is a pity that it has got bogged down on these two issues. The result is that xenophobia, one of the major causes of intolerance driven by racism, and the related issue of asylum seekers, has hardly figured in the Conference. Ironically, even as the Conference is in progress, these issues have come into sharp focus outside, in the events in Australia relating to the Afghan asylum seekers and the `rushing' of the Channel Tunnel by other asylum seekers.

All these issues, and several more, were also discussed at the accompanying NGO Forum (August 28 to September 1), a feature of U.N. Conferences in recent times. The venue for the NGO Forum was the Kingsmead Stadium, a venue adjacent to but a fair walk from the Durban International Convention Centre, the venue of the main Conference. The Forum's proceedings, as expected, were highly disorganised, a sign of both the strength and weakness of such civil society structures. There was free discussion, but little effort to arrive at a practical and meaningful consensus from where one could proceed further.

The NGO Forum too adopted an Declaration, with 62 preliminary paragraphs, each beginning with expressions such as `acknowledging', `saluting', `recognising', `taking note of', `reaffirming', `considering', `appalled by' and so on.

The Declaration, not to put too fine a point upon it, is bit of everything to everyone. One gathers the impression that every lobby was able to get its own pet aversions included in the Declaration. Its formulations on Israel, described as a ``racist, apartheid state'', guilty of ``racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing'' seem to have outraged even so considerate a friend of the NGO sector as Ms. Robinson who has declined to accept the Declaration and has declared that she would not recommend the Declaration to the main Conference.The issue of discriminatory practices affecting the Dalit community featured prominently both at the NGO Forum and outside. The Forum's Declaration situates the issues of caste and untouchability in their broader historical and social context, taking note of both the anti-discrimination provisions of the Indian Constitution and their lack of effectiveness in practice, resulting in the persistence of violence against the Dalits.There is little doubt that the issue of caste and work based discrimination in India has now been widely recognised as one of the persistent evils of Indian society.

By openly and eloquently speaking at every available forum on these issues and disseminating valuable information, much of it based on official sources, to an audience most of whom were not even aware of these evils, the Dalit NGO representation from India has achieved a triumph in terms of visibility and impact, albeit outside the formal structures of the WCAR.

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