As delegates from around the world prepare to head for South Africa at the end of August to attend the UN Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (August 31-September 7), it is already clear that much intolerance exists even among the delegates who are working to hammer out a draft communiqué for the conference. Last month, delegates met in Geneva but failed to agree on a draft because of fundamental differences over how to deal with such subjects as colonialism and slavery and what form reparations for the harm they caused should take. They were divided essentially along geographical lines: representatives of countries in Africa and Asia colonized by the Europeans were arraigned on one side and their erstwhile tormentors on the other.
Colonialism is not a theory; it was a fact of life and had terrible consequences for millions of subject-peoples. Their histories, cultures, languages and livelihoods were destroyed or severely warped and perverted. Today most ruling elites in Africa and Asia, for instance, speak the languages of their colonial masters far better than their own mother-tongues; their lifestyles reflect the tastes of their colonial masters.
Colonialism devastated much in countries that came under its sway. Not surprisingly, several European countries — Britain, Spain and Portugal in particular — strongly oppose classifying slavery and colonialism as “crimes against humanity”. Other European countries — Belgium, France, Germany, Holland — are equally guilty of colonial oppression, but the campaign of denial is led by the terrible trio. Take the case of slavery: they advance the fantastic arguments that at the time the practice was legal, and that in any case it was begun by Arab merchants, as if that justifies it. The notion of trafficking in people as a “crime against humanity” is a modern concept that cannot be applied retroactively, according to the Europeans. The charge against the Arabs is false and is aimed at deflecting attention from the Europeans’ own terrible record. The suffering inflicted upon millions of Africans uprooted from their lands, homes and families is so horrifying that no amount of verbal acrobatics can obfuscate it. Similarly, the plight of most African-Americans in the US today is because of the racism inherent in American political, social and institutional structures.
As for reparations, demanded by many African countries, the US and European countries have said that they are only willing to grant indemnification by development assistance. In other words, they will not accept responsibility for any damage and distruption inflicted during the period of colonialism, and only offer crumbs to assuage the injuries and harm. This issue is likely to dominate the agenda in Durban, because most countries in Africa and Asia suffered immensely at the hands of European colonialists. The people of South Africa have had firsthand experience of this in the form of apartheid imposed on them by European settlers.
Quite aside from the question of financial reparations, ideology has also caused sharp divisions between “third world” countries and the west. The most obvious example is the debate equating zionism with racism. The Europeans have also joined the stonewalling campaign, saying they will not support such a resolution. Israel is a colonial settler-state that is also guilty of genocide against the indigenous Palestinian people. The parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel are strong and profound.
However, Islamic Iran is leading the drive to ensure that zionism is recognized for what it is. This is shown by the laws on the books in Israel, such as the ludicrous “Law of Return,” as well as laws governing ownership of property and sale of land. For example, a Jew born anywhere in the world has automatic rights in ‘Israel’, but a Palestinian born and raised in Palestine has none. Similarly, Israeli law prohibits the sale of land by Jews to Palestinians. They are denied access to their own land, while non-Israeli Jews can simply buy a plane-ticket, arrive in Occupied Palestine and claim a “right” to land stolen from the Palestinians.
The “zionism is racism” issue is likely to be the most hotly debated topic when thousands of delegates meet in Durban. Some Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Qatar among others), under pressure from Israel and the US, are likely to abstain from the resolution equating zionism with racism, yet there appears to be considerable support for the motion. Israeli brutality against the intifada is helping to clear the fog of confusion in the minds of many “third world” delegates. There is, however, one break in the ranks: a curious convergence of interests has emerged between Hindu India and zionist Israel. The Hindus are averse to any possibility of the caste-system being debated in Durban, insisting that it is a local, social problem that has nothing to do with international politics or the racism conference. There are, however, 160 million Dalits in India; they have representatives around the world who are determined to bring the matter up. While India has made contacts in many Arab capitals and cultivated close relations with them, the issue of caste is something that Muslims in Asia and Africa as well as non-Muslim Africans cannot and must not ignore. It is religiously-sanctioned apartheid. This is a matter that must be perfectly understandable to the South Africans if they are serious about addressing issues of racism and discrimination.
The Arab states, meanwhile, have demanded that the final document condemn two “Holocausts”, one perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jewish people the other by the zionists against the Palestinians. Israel is guilty of not one but three crimes: racism; the holocaust of the Palestinian people; and the theft and colonization of their land. Iran has also pointed out that zionism is a form of anti-Semitism: it discriminates directly against the Semitic Arab/Palestinian people. The Swiss, another European power, have said that mentioning two holocausts is “unacceptable” to them. As far as they and the zionists, the Americans and the British are concerned, there is only one holocaust. They cannot allow anyone else to share in this suffering because it is the exclusive right of the Jewish people. Racism continues to be practised even at the UN conference against racism, racial discrimination and so forth.
The conference is expected to generate heated exchanges of opinion, and its ultimate outcome will depend on how much coordination the victim states and peoples can produce in support of their legitimate concerns. It will also test South Africa’s resolve to address the burning issues in earnest instead of buckling to pressure from the west. The Muslim community in South Africa also has a role to play in the conference. It has experienced firsthand the racist behaviour of South African zionists; the Muslim community must make an effort to impress upon delegates the need to come clean and own up to their past crimes, and not continue to indulge in or support similar crimes today.