About us



Vol 36 No 1


Mark Raper SJ

Andrew Hamilton SJ

Tom Rouse SSC

Sandie Cornish

Sue Harris

Susan Connolly RSJ

Carlo Maria Martini SJ

Pauline Rae SMSM

Michael Trainor



Tampering with the Racism Conference


Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will and must be defeated.

—UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan

THE UN WORLD Conference Against Racism (WCAR) has held in Durban, South Africa in August-September 2001. It was the first global opportunity to discuss racism issues at a special UN forum, as the previous UN efforts had focussed exclusively on ending apartheid in South Africa. Hence the significance of the location of the conference and the great desire on the part of host government South Africa for WCAR to yield tangible results.

Racism, racial intolerance, xenophobia and related intolerance—this is difficult and complex subject matter, not to mention extremely sensitive for all governments. A World Conference Against Racism was always going to be messy, for want of a better word, once the clear target of apartheid had disappeared. But no one predicted with accuracy the level of visceral diplomatic conflict that ensued.

The Lead Up

In 1997 the United Nations General Assembly, on the recommendation of the UN Commission on Human Rights, decided to convene a world conference against racism, racial intolerance, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Since 1973 till 2003, the United Nations has declared three decades of action to combat racism. There had been two earlier world conferences on racism in this time, in 1978 and 1983, dealing with apartheid. Even earlier, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1965. In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly decided to proclaim 2001 as the International Year of Mobilization against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The WCAR was held in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7, 2001.

The WCAR discussions were focused on five themes, which concern:

1. The way racism is manifested
2. Who racism affects
3. How racism can be prevented
4. How racism can be remedied, and
5. Strategies to combat racism

The outcomes of the discussions are a Declaration and a Global Program of Action, with action-oriented recommendations to combat racism.

Globally, the conflicts over Durban were brewing since the beginning. There was some preliminary media about WCAR, and the various PrepComs leading up to the event. An impartial observer’s conclusion could only be that WCAR drafting process has been at best a difficult and fraught negotiation, and at worst, a diplomatic bloodbath that was in danger of moving the agenda backwards rather than forwards. The ‘deal-breakers’ were:

• Compensation and apologies for the victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade

• Conflict in the Middle East—can Zionism be equated to racism, are the conditions in Palestine a new form of apartheid?

• Caste—can caste issues become racism for groups like the Dalits? (an issue which had been taken off the official WCAR agenda by India but pushed by NGOs)

Drama in Durban

The Durban Conference was, and has remained, mired in controversy, with even the outcome documents delayed by months due to drafting irregularities. Many Australian participants considered the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Forum, which preceded WCAR, as a farce. The NGO Declaration was meant to influence the official government-led Conference, but had not been finished or commented on by most of the NGO delegates and was too late to influence proceedings to any large extent.

The most dramatic event of the official WCAR was when the USA and Israeli delegations pulled out over references to Zionism as racism in the context of the escalating Middle East conflict. The tensions between Jewish and Arab delegates at the NGO Forum were also high, leading to seriously concerning, even racist, behaviour. The High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, Mary Robinson, appeared at her wits end when she said on September 3rd that she regretted the decision by the United States and Israel to withdraw from the Durban meeting: ‘Countless people around the world have placed high hopes on this Conference’, she said. ‘We owe it to them to work until the very last minute to have at the end of our meeting a ringing endorsement of tolerance and respect for human dignity’.

Ms. Robinson has since announced on 18 March 2002 in Geneva that she will be leaving the post this year. Human Rights Watch reported that although she made no mention of the US campaign against her, it is widely known that officials in Washington had pressed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan not to ask her to serve out the last three years of her second term due to displeasure over the Durban process. (HRW 2002)

Meanwhile Australia was well on its way to being considered a pariah internationally for its refusal to let the Norwegian cargo ship the Tampa land at Christmas Island with its load of rescued asylum-seekers. This act was unequivocally seen as having racist or xenophobic overtones in the coverage of the international media, not to mention related to the Federal election.

Australian Preparations for WCAR

Australia was not obviously affected by any of the international deal-breaker issues, except by analogy with the slave trade debate in terms of reparations for the stolen generation and an apology. The most pressing items on Australia’s agenda from an NGO perspective were the rights of indigenous peoples, our experience of multiculturalism, and refugee and asylum-seeker issues. After Australia’s extremely negative reaction to the UN Committee for Racial Discrimination report last year and immediate calls for treaty body reform, the NGO community may not have had high hopes for a constructive government response to WCAR. Nevertheless, many NGOs considered there were things the Australian government could justifiably put forward as ‘best practice’ or suitable for global emulation, such as the National Museum, SBS radio and TV, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and so forth.

Therefore, a coalition of Australian NGOs pressed on and urged the government in a constructive manner to get more involved with the Conference, to send a high-level delegation, to publicise WCAR and to fund the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to hold consultations about WCAR in Australian communities. In the end, HREOC held excellent regional consultations around Australia and a Civil Society Forum, but with funding given by the UN rather than our own government. ATSIC held an extremely important satellite preparatory conference on indigenous peoples and racism, attended by indigenous people from the USA, Canada, NZ and Australia, the only forum of its kind. Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Philip Ruddock was to lead the official delegation to Durban, which had several civil society representatives, a youth representative and some State ministers.

The Code of Race Ethics

The WCAR NGO Working Group also worked hard to convince Federal Parliamentarians to reaffirm their signature or sign on to the Federal Parliamentary Code of Race Ethics, first conceived in 1998.

The Code reads:

As a member of the Australian Federal Parliament I agree:

1. To act in a manner which upholds the honour of public office and the parliament;

2. To respect the religious and cultural beliefs of all groups living within Australia in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

3. To uphold principles of justice and tolerance within our multicultural society, making efforts to generate understanding of all minority groups;

4. To recognize and value diversity as an integral part of Australia’s social and economic future;

5. To help without discrimination all persons seeking assistance;

6. To speak and write in a manner which provides factual commentary on a foundation of truth about all issues being debated in the community and the parliament;

7. To encourage the partnership of government and non-government organizations in leading constructive and informed debate in the community; and

8. To promote reconciliation with indigenous Australians. (emphasis added)

Then the wheels fell off when a ship called the Tampa rescued a sinking boat. The timing was extraordinary—the Durban Conference, with all its difficulties, was about to begin. Parliamentary Secretary Kay Paterson was sent to Durban instead of Philip Ruddock.

Australian NGOs in Durban issued this statement at the beginning of WCAR on Friday 31st August 2001:

Australia’s treatment of the refugees in the vessel now off Christmas Island represents a new low point for the country, according to the Australian NGOs currently attending the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

Speaking from Durban today, spokesperson Andrew Larcos said that ‘With thousands of delegates from around the world gathering together at this international conference to discuss racism, Australia could not have picked a worse possible moment to reveal an intransigent nature on a humanitarian issue.’

‘There is no doubt that this incident and the government’s handling of the matter has done enormous damage to Australia’s international reputation as a fair and compassionate nation.’

‘Let there be no doubt that the world is well aware of how Australia has mistreated these asylum-seekers. We should expect to cop a fair bit of criticism from the international delegates in attendance at this World Conference.’

Reflecting on Durban

So how did the World Conference Against Racism go so horribly pear-shaped, from both an Australian and a global perspective? Is there any hope now, over six months later, for a useful outcome? It may be that all the work that went into WCAR from Australian NGOs and public servants was for naught in terms of Australia’s reputation on racism issues in Durban itself. Activists are still reeling as to the massive popularity of the Tampa decision with the Australian public, the ‘children overboard’ scandal and the subsequent so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ policy. Indigenous policy remains extremely fraught. Never has the lack of a peak human rights NGO body been so keenly felt .

Nevertheless, the Australian government has agreed to an international document that recognised in its Program of Action that victims of trafficking are particularly exposed to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. States agreed to ensure that all measures taken against trafficking in persons, in particular those that affect the victims of such trafficking, are consistent with internationally recognized principles of non-discrimination, including the prohibition of racial discrimination and the availability of appropriate legal redress.

Australia also agreed at WCAR to comply with its obligations under international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law relating to refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced persons, and to provide them with protection and assistance in an equitable manner and with due regard to their needs in different parts of the world, in keeping with principles of international solidarity, burden sharing and international cooperation to share responsibilities.

Finally, and a crucial point, Australia agreed that politicians and political parties can play a key role in combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The Program for Action encourages political parties to take concrete steps to promote equality, solidarity and non-discrimination in society, inter alia by developing voluntary codes of conduct which include disciplinary measures for violations thereof, so that their members refrain from public statements and actions that encourage or incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Post-Durban Debates

This agreement does not seem to have changed government policy on racism issues so far. HREOC hosted a WCAR follow-up conference called ‘Beyond Tolerance’ in Sydney in March that was well attended but failed to provide a clear advocacy platform for the domestic context. The Government declined to send a representative. Meanwhile, a Senate Select Committee has begun taking evidence from senior Defence personnel over the ‘children overboard’ affair and the ‘Pacific Solution’ this month, as part of the quaintly named inquiry into a ‘Certain Maritime Incident’. The Government denies scapegoating asylum-seekers to boost their electoral chances.

Ministers Downer and Ruddock have labelled a recent report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism about his visit to Australia last year from 22 April to 10 May 2001 as ‘poor quality’ and lacking credibility (DFAT 2002). The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr William Jonas responded by stating that ‘The response to the Special Rapporteur’s report extends the attacks of the Government on the UN human rights committees to other UN mechanisms. It is a continuation of this denial of the existence of racism in Australia. The government must stop obfuscating and shooting the messenger. Australia’s international reputation is better served by acknowledging that, like every country of the world, we do have problems with racism and by recommitting to genuine efforts to address the issues.’ (HREOC 2002)

Time will tell whether our political institutions and parties decide whether it is too dangerous to ‘play the race card’ during an election—or not. Time will also tell what impact our new adversarial approach to the United Nations human rights bodies will have on Australia’s international reputation.

A First Step?

Perhaps the lesson of Durban and the Tampa is that human rights advocates in Australia need to go back to basics in their own communities and begin again to build a community commitment to human rights. One bright spot was the genuine cooperation of many diverse NGOs around the WCAR.

Perhaps it is yet another historical lesson about the power of leadership to tap into the fears and insecurities that underlie racist and xenophobic attitudes for electoral gain, currently happening around the globe. Perhaps the final Declaration and Program for Action might still be an important document despite the heat of its conception.

Most likely Durban was just a necessary first, faltering step in a long journey towards a world which is colour-blind. That is my fervent hope.


WCAR Declaration and Program for Action—http://www.unhchr.ch/

HREOC and the World Conference Against Racism—http://www.hreoc.gov.au/worldconference/index.html

The Australian Government Response to WCAR—http://www.dfat.gov.au/hr/racism_conf/index.html

Human Rights Watch Press Release 18 March 2002 ‘UN: Robinson’s Departure a ‘Disappointment’. Human Rights Commissioner Was a Target of U.S.’ http://www.hrw.org/press/2002/03/robinson0318.htm

DFAT Press Release—Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Alexander Downer MP and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, the Hon Philip Ruddock MP, Friday 22 March 2002. ‘UN Report Has No Credibility’—http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2002/fa033l_02.html

HREOC Press Release—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr William Jonas—‘UN Report on racism should be taken seriously.’ 25 March 2002—http://www.hreoc.gov.au/media_releases/2002/15_02.html.

Sue Harris is the Policy Officer focussing on human rights for the Australian Council for Overseas Aid; and was a member of the WCAR NGO Working Group.The views in this article are her own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFOA.

The two major political parties at Federal level maintain that Australia cannot afford to increase the refugee program of 12,000 people per year, including asylum seekers who are granted refugee status in Australia.

We are not persuaded by this argument, particularly as the number of humanitarian cases approved overseas by the Australian Government through its Migrant Officers is currently at about one third of the level of 20 years ago. As a wealthy nation we have a responsibility to welcome those who truly come to us seeking asylum. That responsibility is the heavier when military and political action in Afghanistan and the Middle East has been carried on with our support.

A starting point would be to meet, every year, the Humanitarian Program quota of 12,000.

—‘Refugees and Asylum Seekers’, Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 26th March 2002.