Most of the participants at the third UN World Conference Against Racism arrived in Durban filled with cautious optimism, coming to raise critical issues of racial justice. Some were seeking reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, others for exposing the racist core of Zionism. Dalits from India contended that the caste oppression they have endured is basically a racial issue, and Russian immigrants in Israel argued that their experience can only be described as racial discrimination.
Organisations varied greatly in their motivations and approach to the Conference. For some, the UN constitutes a central, if not sole, arena of struggle. For others it simply provides a prestigious venue in which to air issues and embarrass governments.
One unusual feature was the large number of Muslim NGOs: at least ten percent of delegates were Muslim, although not all were representing Islamic organisations. Muslim NGOs made a wide variety of contributions to the conference, but it was in PR and mass-mobilisations that they excelled.
It was largely their effort that ensured that the Palestinian situation held centre stage throughout the conference. Holding the WCAR in South Africa was another advantage: it seems that most South Africans, having been victims of apartheid, instinctively understand the racist nature of Zionism. But perhaps more important than all this was the support to the Palestinian cause given by the South African Muslims. Two demonstrations, one in Cape Town a week before the Conference opened and the other on the last day of the NGO Forum, attracted tens of thousands of people. T-shirts proclaiming the Palestinian cause were everywhere.
Perhaps the most effective move was that of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), whichbrought three senior rabbis from America to join the anti-Zionist lobby. The image of Jewish rabbis and Muslims marching together against Israel was beamed around the world, totally destroying the Israeli claim that any criticism of zionism is anti-semitic. The WCAR was by no means short of Zionist bullies, but the Muslims and rabbis together carried the day.
Any success over the Palestinian issue, unfortunately, had nothing to do with the efforts of the official Palestinian or Arab delegations. After a meeting with Yasser Arafat (the leader of the official Palestinian delegation), Rev. Jesse Jackson, the US Democratic Presidential candidate, claimed that the Palestinians were not interested in equating Zionism with racism. According to Jackson, Arafat said that “we will not support statements against Zionism, nor are we going to support statement equating Zionism with racism.” What the official Palestinian delegation wanted was “a resumption of the peace talks, and not a side debate on Zionism”.
Amr Musa, Arab League secretary-general, said that Arab states and the Palestinians were open to compromise. “It’s not a hopeless case. We can reach a neutral compromise. We are flexible on all sides,” he told reporters. The Palestinians’ real supporters, however, were in no mood to compromise.
More than 600 NGOs travelled to Durban for the WCAR. Most of the NGO delegates (between 12 and 14 thousand of them) carried dreams and agendas harboured for years to this beautiful city. It could not accommodate all of them physically, but it could embrace all the aspirations of the grieved and marginalised peoples of the world. A message on the T-shirt of a Durbanite activist summarised the spirit of events: “Welcome to Durban: a race and Zionist-free zone.”