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By Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference Against Racism Aug. 31-Sept. 7.

NEW YORK -- At the end of a period of intensive negotiations in preparation for the World Conference Against Racism to be held in Durban, South Africa (Aug. 31-Sept. 7), it is timely to reflect on just why the issues are so important. Much attention to date has focused on the impact on the negotiations of the Middle East conflict, but this should not deflect us from the core questions. Why is it vital to achieve a breakthrough against racism at Durban? What would constitute a breakthrough? The answers may seem obvious: racism, discrimination, ethnic conflict, xenophobia, marginalization, stigma and intolerance are pressing problems throughout our world, north and south, developed and developing. We need strategies to combat these scourges. But there is a more profound reason -- a deeper chord that Durban can strike. And the timing is right -- the frame provided by a new century.

This conference will have a practical agenda and far-reaching consequences. But if we are to seize the unique opportunity it offers, then we have to go deeper than that agenda. We have to look at the subtle and often harrowing realities that can hide in the titles and papers and propositions. We have to find, in other words, the beginnings of a conversation that will let us talk about the extraordinary pain we have inflicted on one another on this planet. Pain inflicted by words. Pain inflicted without words.

In his path-breaking novel "Invisible Man'' the African-American writer Ralph Ellison wrote, "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.'' His powerful suggestion of willful exclusion -- of the decision we can all make to demote the humanity of other human beings -- should be in our minds at Durban. Unless we can find a way to talk about the ragged edges of human hatred, unless we find a dialogue in which the deep hurt of individuals, peoples and cultures at their invisibility and exclusion can find expression, then we will return to a silence which is itself damaging.

One of the reasons the conference in Beijing in 1995 was so successful was because women could feel that their rights were not sectional or factional, but that they were human rights in the broadest sense. In the same way, if this conference can reassure those who have been injured, made invisible, made less human by language, that their rights are central to all human rights, then we will, I believe, have started on that conversation we all need to have.

Human relationships are at the very core. Over the past months I've had a unique opportunity to listen to individual victims of racism and discrimination, to meet NGOs (non-governmental organizations) representing those of African descent in the Americas, indigenous peoples, minorities in Europe such as the Roma and Travellers. For them, this conference can "break the silence,'' "make us visible,'' "put our agenda on the table at last.'' Coming out of one of the sessions of the preparatory committee a few days ago, I was surrounded by young people eager to press their points. The passionate views of an indigenous girl were translated by her young colleague, who then spoke of the exclusion he suffers as an Afro-Latino. "The world must listen to our views in the Youth Summit. More of us need to be able to get to Durban to participate.'' This, for me, sums up one of the most positive aspects of the preparatory process: that it is helping to create and to shape a global alliance against racism and discrimination and in support of inclusion and human rights.

We cannot avoid beginning with the past. I have become increasingly aware of the extent of deep hurt felt in many parts of the world at the lack of recognition of the impact of mass slavery and also of the exploitation of colonialism. There is a sense that the deaths and sufferings which resulted from slavery have never been adequately marked, much less mourned. There is a sense, too, of lost generations and lost opportunities that have stunted the development of poorer countries, particularly in Africa, with effects right into the present. It can be hard to shape a new future if old wounds are still hurting.

Language adopted by the global community that solemnly recognizes the hurts and exploitations of the past at the beginning of this new century could help to heal these wounds. It could also harness new energies in a revitalized campaign against racism, discrimination and intolerance. Solemn language would need to be underpinned by a commitment to solidarity in practical terms through a program of support, such as for the New African Initiative, the goals of the Millennium Summit and other measures to promote development.

The tasks facing us are daunting. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned: "The months leading up to the conference have opened up deep fissures on a number of sensitive issues, such as the legacy of slavery and colonialism, and the situation in the Middle East. If this conference is to succeed, there is an acute need for common ground. The conference must help heal old wounds without reopening them; it must confront the past, but most importantly it must help set a new course against racism in the future.''

This will be the first global anti-racism conference of the post-apartheid era. It has a very broad remit. It will address every manifestation of racism and discrimination in the modern world. It will confront traditional forms of racism and the plight of groups at particular risk: indigenous peoples, ethnic, religious and cultural minorities. At the same time, it will break new ground by considering victims who have not received much attention at previous international events: refugees, asylum seekers, migrants; the Roma, Sinti and Traveller communities; trafficked persons; those of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

There will be particular emphasis on the root causes of racism and discrimination and the linkages, for example, with extreme poverty. We will be looking at the phenomenon of multiple discrimination -- a striking example being women who belong to a particular ethnic group and find themselves discriminated against both because they are women and because they belong to a minority.

The impact of the technological revolution will also be scrutinized. The Internet is a powerful force for sharing information about racism and for spreading positive messages about the value of diversity. But it is also being used by neo-Nazis and other extremist groups to spread their messages of hate.

So how do we start that deeper conversation? During the recent Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed us the way and inspired his listeners when he described his vision: "We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity. There is not just one star, there are galaxies of all different sorts, a plethora of animal species, different kinds of plants, and different races and ethnic groups? Worth is intrinsic, not dependent on anything external, intrinsic. Thus there can be no superior or inferior race. We are all of equal worth, born equal in dignity and born free and, for this reason, deserving of respect whatever our external circumstances. We belong in a world whose very structure, whose essence, is diversity almost bewildering in extent, and it is to live in a fool's paradise to ignore this basic fact.''

Archbishop Tutu's words sum up the goal of the Durban Conference: It is nothing less than a world where racism, intolerance and discrimination are spurned and differences and diversity celebrated.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 8/16/01)