When I arrived at the grand offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the Palais Wilson, looking out at a drizzly Lake Geneva, Navanethem Pillay was hunched over the shoulder of her deputy, Kyung-wha Kang, dictating a press release. "I am shocked and deeply disappointed," I heard her say, pointing at the screen while Kang typed. It was 3:00 p.m., and Pillay was having a very bad day.
"Done," she finally declared, plopping down at her conference table. The press release was a response to some disappointing news. The previous night, the United States, under the leadership of its first African-American president, had announced that it would boycott the United Nations Durban Review Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, citing its alleged anti-Israel bias. The conference was to start the following day, April 20, 2009, with Pillay presiding. Known by critics as "Durban II," this was the only United Nations gathering specifically focused on pushing governments to combat racism inside their borders, a task that had become increasingly urgent as financial crises continued to stoke ethnic tensions around the world.
Despite Pillay’s official claims of being "shocked and deeply disappointed," the U.S. boycott had long been expected. The nasty surprise was that, on the eve of the conference, it had triggered an exodus of other countries. As we met, the press was reporting that Australia, Germany, and New Zealand had joined the boycott. After all, if Barack Obama—a global symbol of the victory against racism—wasn’t coming, why should they? And it could get worse, Pillay told me. "The E.U. states are meeting at 6:00 p.m. tonight, and the Netherlands and Italy are likely to pull out." She and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been on the phone with foreign ministers all day, trying to prevent the entire European Union from walking out. Canada and Israel had pulled out months before.
As Pillay was tallying up the damage, an aide popped her head in the door: "The dancers are here." The high commissioner, a South African judge with a slightly imperious air, was suddenly pleased: "We should go and look!" The dancers, who were chatting and stretching in the Palais’s marble atrium, were members of Surialanga, a much-celebrated South African troupe that combines three unlikely forms of dance: Zulu tribal, Indian traditional, and "gumboot," a protest dance born in South Africa‘s mines. Pillay had invited them to perform at the conference in the hope that their cross-cultural fusions would inspire delegates to greater cooperation.
She would need all the help she could get. The attempt to stage a follow-up to the World Conference on Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, had led to one of the most fractious negotiations in the history of the United Nations, with organizers attempting to satisfy a shifting array of demands from the United States—most in direct conflict with pressure from Muslim countries—while a phalanx of pro-Israel pressure groups did their best to sink the gathering. Through it all Pillay remained relentlessly positive, always insisting that important progress was being made. But on this Sunday afternoon, dressed in a casual tangerine-colored sari rather than in her usual more formal garb, the high commissioner allowed herself a brief undiplomatic moment. "It’s like being stabbed each time when I hear somebody’s withdrawing."
It was a little surprising to witness Pillay so frustrated. This is a woman who as a young lawyer won better prison conditions for anti-apartheid activists locked away on Robben Island, then went on to become the first non-white woman on the South African High Court, then was named president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Compared with tackling the apartheid justice system and genocide trials, organizing a racism conference should have been a breeze.
And the diplomacy in some important respects had gone rather well, with Pillay and her team often discovering compromises where none seemed possible. But what Pillay was wholly unprepared for was the Swift Boat-style attack campaign that had set its sights on the conference and on her personally, an information war waged with deep pockets and an utter indifference to truth. She had encountered misinformation before, Pillay said, "but not a deliberate campaign." What she eventually discovered was that the things she thought mattered—the actual text of documents, the agreements negotiated between states—mattered little. It was the battle over perceptions that would shape history.
Every U.N. conference—whether on women or refugees or biological weapons—aims to produce a "final declaration" that represents the gathering’s agreed-upon consensus. Most of the work is done at the preparatory conferences ("prepcoms," in U.N. lingo), and the final wording is hammered out at the event itself. The Durban Review Conference was different. There was such a fervent desire to bring Obama’s government to the table that virtually every member state in the United Nations agreed on the text of the final declaration before the conference even opened. The hope was that, with the negotiations completed, Obama could be assured of no nasty surprises and would send a delegation to the conference. The declaration to which all these countries—including Iran and Syria—agreed did not cross any of what the State Department had described as its "red lines." It contained no references at all to Israel or to Palestinians. It was scrubbed of all mention of "defamation of religion" (a concession from Muslim states that had been trying to bar "blasphemous" portrayals of Islam). And all references to the transatlantic slave trade being "a crime" deserving of reparations had been removed, also under U.S. pressure.
Sweetening the deal further, the conference would not include an NGO Forum. Such parallel "civil society" meetings are standard at major U.N. gatherings, from the Rio Earth Summit to the Beijing Women’s Conference. In Durban in 2001, however, the NGO Forum had generated no end of controversy. With more than 8,000 participants, the U.N. had not even tried to exert control. It turned into a free-for-all, with the Arab Lawyers Union passing out a booklet that contained Der Stürmer-style cartoons of hook-nosed Jews with bloody fangs, among other incidents. Meanwhile, the drafting of an NGO manifesto had been a bitter process, ending in language equating Zionism with racism and a decision by Pillay’s predecessor, former Irish president Mary Robinson, to publicly condemn the document.
These were genuine failings, but many conference observers felt that the U.N., by eliminating the NGO Forum and by taking some of the most pressing race-related crises off the table, had gone much too far to appease the United States. Worse, the strategy hadn’t worked: after succeeding in dramatically weakening the document, the U.S. chose to boycott anyway, taking many of its allies with it. For the U.S. civil rights movement, which had regarded the first Durban conference as an historic turning point, the boycott was Obama’s most explicit betrayal since taking office (even if most black leaders offered only timid criticism of the President publicly). The official explanation supplied by the State Department was that the new declaration, though "significantly improved," still "reaffirms in toto the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) from 2001." This was apparently another "red line."
A few hours after I left Pillay’s office, the BBC World Service ran a revealing segment on that original Durban Declaration. The host was Julian Marshall, and one of his guests was Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel‘s Foreign Ministry. Marshall began by asking what all the fuss was about: "Why exactly is Israel staying away from the U.N. racism conference?" Palmor replied that it was "because it isn’t a U.N. racism conference, it is a conference about Israel-bashing, just like its predecessor." He told Marshall that "in the previous conference, Israel was singled out as the most racist state on earth, probably almost the only racist state" and that these claims were not made in a few inflammatory speeches but in the conference’s official final declaration.
At this point Marshall stopped Palmor, saying that he had been reading that much-maligned sixty-one-page Durban Declaration and had been unable to find anything in it that fit Palmor’s description. He then proceeded to do what almost no journalist had done before. He quoted, at length, the specific clauses in the 2001 Durban Declaration that have to do with anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ones that supposedly accused Israel of being "the most racist state on earth" and were so unfair that the U.S. government could not attend any conference that "reaffirms" them. Here are those dastardly passages:
Paragraph 58: We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten;
Paragraph 61: We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities;
Paragraph 63: We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.
As Marshall read these statements, each less offensive and more banal than the one before, Palmor became increasingly agitated. "I’m not sure we’re talking about the same conference," he said, "because even though I don’t have the text in front of me, I remember quite precisely some quotes that were completely contrary to those that you’ve just quoted. So we must be speaking about two different documents."
And that, at least, was absolutely true: Palmor and Marshall were talking about two different documents and two different conferences. There was the Durban conference to which Marshall was referring, the one that actually took place, in space and time, and produced the final declaration from which Marshall read. And then there was the conference to which Palmor was referring—a nightmarish anti-Semitic "hate-fest" cooked up by Iran and Syria with the sole purpose of wiping Israel off the map. That conference did not take place, which is why the quotes Palmor claimed to precisely recall do not actually exist.
On the surface, it seemed that Obama, by boycotting, had simply given in to the power of the misinformation campaign: it didn’t matter if Durban was unfair to Israel or if it really was a "hate-fest"; what mattered was that its critics had convinced the world that it was, making Obama’s own views irrelevant. But there is also another possibility. Obama may have known exactly what happened in Durban, as well as what it meant to civil rights leaders and to anti-racism activists around the world. And it may have been precisely this discussion that Obama was determined to avoid. Because what happened in Durban in 2001 is that thousands of intellectuals, politicians, and activists got together and told a new story about the causes and cures of racism. The original Durban conference was not all about Israel, as Palmor and so many others have claimed; it was overwhelmingly about Africa, the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the huge unpaid debts that the rich owe the poor. It is a story with which Western governments have never been comfortable, but there is perhaps no administration to which it represents a greater threat than the one headed by Barack Obama. Because the story that was told in Durban is a frontal challenge to the fairy tale Americans have been telling one another of late—the one about having entered a "post-racial" era, with their dashing president cast in the leading role.
Durban and the Legacy of Slavery
Holding the 2001 World Conference on Racism in what was still being called "the New South Africa" seemed like a terrific idea. What better place to celebrate all the things the U.N. likes to celebrate: multiculturalism, non-violence, multilateralism, and civil society. In the previous decade, these forces had joined with the people of South Africa to defeat apartheid. Now they would join together once again, in a feel-good triumph-over-tragedy setting, to defeat the world’s few remaining vestiges of discrimination—things like police violence, unequal access to certain jobs, lack of adequate health care for minorities, and intolerance toward immigrants. Appropriate disapproval would be expressed for such failures of equality, and a well-meaning document pledging change would be signed to much fanfare. That, at least, is what Western governments expected to happen.
They were mistaken. Seven years after the historic elections that brought the African National Congress to power, South Africans were beginning to confront a harsh new reality. Through the decades of struggle against apartheid, the ANC had pledged that liberation would not only mean the right of blacks and "coloreds" to vote and move freely. It would also mean that the wealth of the country that had been hoarded by its white elite would finally be shared, bringing water, electricity, good schools, and decent homes to the townships, and arable land to black farmers in the countryside. This massive development project was to be funded, according to the ANC’s founding document—the Freedom Charter—by nationalizing the crown jewels of the apartheid economy: the banks and the mines.
But, like so many other governments in the early 1990s, when the ANC came to power, it underwent a dramatic ideological conversion. Rather than fund the development it had promised through nationalizations, or by demanding reparations from apartheid’s wealthy winners, the ANC decided to attract new money through foreign investment. By 2001, the results of South Africa‘s free-market experiments were already evident: more people were living in abject poverty than during the apartheid years. To make the utility companies attractive to private buyers, the government was dramatically increasing rates on water and electricity, as well as rents. Jobs were moving offshore thanks to new free-trade rules, and land was still concentrated in the hands of the white minority.
When the World Conference on Racism arrived in Durban, many delegates were shocked by the mood in the streets: tens of thousands of residents joined protests outside the conference center, holding signs that said landlessness = racism and new apartheid: rich and poor. South Africa‘s disillusionment, though particularly striking given its recent democratic victory, was part of a much broader global trend, one that would define the conference, both in the streets and in the assembly halls. Around the world, developing countries were increasingly identifying the so-called Washington Consensus economic policies as little more than a clever rebranding effort, a way for former northern colonial powers to continue to drain the southern countries of their wealth without being inconvenienced by the heavy lifting of colonialism. Roughly two years before Durban, a coalition of developing countries had refused to further liberalize their economies, leading to the collapse of World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. A few months later, a newly militant movement calling for a debt jubilee disrupted the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington. Durban was a continuation of this mounting southern rebellion, but it added something else to the mix: a new accounting.
Although it was true that southern countries owed debts to foreign banks and lending institutions, it was also true that in the colonial period—the first wave of globalization—the wealth of the North was built, in large part, on stolen indigenous land and the free labor provided by the slave trade. Many in Durban argued that when these two debts were included in the calculus, it was actually the poorest regions of the world—especially Africa and the Caribbean—that turned out to be the creditors and the rich world that owed a debt. All big U.N. conferences tend to coalesce around a theme, and in Durban the clear theme was the call for reparations. The gathering’s overriding message was that even though the most visible signs of racism had largely disappeared—colonial rule, apartheid, Jim Crow-style segregation—profound racial divides will persist and even widen until the states and corporations that profited from centuries of state-sanctioned racism pay back some of what they owe.
African and Caribbean governments came to Durban with two key demands, hashed out at a series of preparatory meetings. The first was for an acknowledgment that slavery and even colonialism itself constituted "crimes against humanity" under international law. The second demand was for the countries that perpetrated and profited from these crimes to begin to repair the damage. Most everyone agreed that reparations should include a clear and unequivocal apology for slavery, as well as a commitment to returning stolen artifacts and to educating the public about the scale and impact of the slave trade. Above and beyond these more symbolic acts, there was a great deal of debate. Dudley Thompson, former Jamaican foreign minister and a longtime leader in the Pan-African movement, was opposed to any attempt to assign a number to the debt: "It is impossible to put a figure to killing millions of people, our ancestors," he said. The leading reparations voices instead spoke of a "moral debt" that could be used as leverage to reorder international relations in multiple ways, from canceling Africa’s foreign debts to launching a huge development program for Africa on a par with Europe‘s Marshall Plan. What was emerging was a demand for a radical New Deal for the global South.
These ideas were not new, but they were advanced in Durban with a distinctly new attitude: African countries would not beg for charity any longer, nor would they ask for their debts to be "forgiven"; they would negotiate with the rich world as equals. Before 2001, Thompson, now ninety-two, told me, reparations were a mere "footnote." But "Durban put it on the table once and for all."
Of course there were plenty of African governments represented in Durban that had little moral prerogative to be making this demand. Robert Mugabe’s corrupt regime in Zimbabwe, for instance, exploited a just call for reparations by forcibly handing over land to his cronies, and some other African countries, like Sudan and Gabon, condemned the transatlantic slave trade even as they allowed a flourishing traffic in humans. Yet despite the inevitable hypocrisies, there was a genuine injustice being put on trial in Durban, one simply articulated by the African negotiating bloc: "Other groups which were subjected to other scourges and injustices have received repeated apologies from different countries, as well as ample reparations." The transatlantic slave trade, though widely acknowledged as a terrible wrong, had yet to be treated as a crime.
African and Caribbean countries had been holding high-level summits on reparations for a decade, with little effect. What prompted the Durban breakthrough was that a similar debate had taken off inside the United States. The facts are familiar, if commonly ignored. Even as overt expressions of racism recede, and as individual blacks break the color barrier in virtually every field, the correlation between race and poverty remains deeply entrenched. Blacks in the United States consistently have dramatically higher rates of infant mortality, incarceration, unemployment, and HIV infection, as well as lower salaries, life expectancy, and rates of home ownership. The biggest gap, however, is in net worth. By the end of the 1990s, the average black family had a net worth one eighth the national average. Low net worth means less access to traditional credit (and, as we would later learn, more subprime mortgages). It also means families have little besides debt to pass on from one generation to the next, preventing the wealth gap from closing on its own.
For a brief time, affirmative action was supposed to bridge the divide. But by the mid-Nineties, courts were increasingly ruling it discriminatory, and, in any case, it had only scratched the surface. Making matters worse, in 1996 the Clinton Administration launched "welfare reform," a major assault on the few services available to poor black families. It was in this context that a growing number of African-American scholars began to argue that the only way to force the U.S. government to make badly needed investments in impoverished schools and neighborhoods was to frame these investments as reparations.
In 2000, Randall Robinson published The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, which argued that "white society . . . must own up to slavery and acknowledge its debt to slavery’s contemporary victims." The book became a movement bible, and within months the call for reparations was starting to look like a new anti-apartheid struggle. Students demanded that universities disclose their historical ties to the slave trade, city councils began holding public hearings on reparations, and chapters of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) had sprung up across the country. Meanwhile, all of the major civil rights groups came out in favor of Democratic congressman John Conyers’s bill calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations, and Charles Ogletree, the celebrated Harvard Law professor (and one of Barack Obama’s closest mentors), put together a team of all-star lawyers to try to win reparations lawsuits in U.S. courts.
By the spring of 2001, reparations had become a hot-button topic on talk shows and op-ed pages. And although opponents consistently portrayed the demand as blacks wanting individual handouts from the government, most reparations advocates were clear that they were seeking group solutions: mass scholarship funds, for instance, or major investments in preventative health care. By the time Durban rolled around in late August, the conference had taken on the air of a black Woodstock. Small radical groups like the December 12th Movement and the National Black United Front spent months raising money to buy 400 plane tickets to South Africa. They called their delegation The Durban 400. Activists traveled to Durban from 168 countries, but the largest delegation by far came from the United States: approximately 3,000 people, roughly 2,000 of them African Americans. Charles Ogletree pumped up the crowds with an energetic address: "This is a movement that cannot be stopped. There are no plaintiffs that will not be considered. I promise that we will see reparations in our lifetime."
In Durban, this increasingly confident U.S. movement converged with the reparations call coming from Africa and the Caribbean, and a single, muscular demand rose up from the mass of delegates: If you want to end racism, pay us back for what you have stolen. The demand for payback proved contagious, and it took many forms. Indigenous peoples wanted broken treaties honored. Brazilian peasants, many descended from slaves, said racism would not be addressed without redistributing land to them. And the South African protesters outside, tired of waiting for the ANC to make good on its promises, wanted reparations for the crimes of apartheid.
In all these different but connected ways, anti-racism was transformed in Durban from something safe and comfortable for elites to embrace into something explosive, threatening, and potentially very, very costly. North American and European governments, the debtors in this new accounting, were vastly outnumbered and in the months before the conference tried to steer the negotiations onto safe terrain. "We are better to look forward and not point fingers backward," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said. It was a losing battle. Durban, according to Amina Mohamed, chief negotiator for the Africa bloc, was Africa‘s "rendezvous with history."
There was one hitch. Six months before the meeting in Durban, at an Asian preparatory conference in Tehran, a few Islamic countries requested language in their draft of the Durban Declaration that described Israeli policies in the occupied territories as "a new kind of apartheid" and a "form of genocide." Then, a month before the conference, there was a new push for changes that were sure to grab international headlines. Some references to the Holocaust were placed in lower case, pluralized ("holocausts"), and paired with the "ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine." References to "the increase in anti-Semitism and hostile acts against Jews" were paired with phrases about "the increase of racist practices of Zionism," and Zionism was described as a movement "based on racism and discriminatory ideas."
There is a strong argument to be made that Israel’s legal system—which has different laws and even roads for Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank, and which grants and denies citizen rights based largely on religious affiliation—meets the international definition of apartheid (a few years later, former president Jimmy Carter would use the same term to describe the segregation in the occupied territories). But taken as a whole, this proposed language—by attempting to downplay the significance of the Holocaust and diluting the clauses on anti-Semitism—carried an unmistakable whiff of denialism.
Most importantly, by reviving the incendiary equation of Zionism with racism that had torn the U.N. apart for decades, the Islamic states instantly upstaged Africans’ demands. As Nicole Lee, the current director of the TransAfrica Forum, told me, there was an acute awareness in Durban that "if you put Zionism on trial, that’s all you can do." What was particularly frustrating to the countries fighting for a new consensus on the legacy of slavery was that the Zionism sentences were attracting all the media attention despite the fact that they had no chance of making it into the final draft. The Islamic states did not have the votes, and Mary Robinson, the conference’s secretary general, had made it very clear "that we cannot go back to the language of Zionism as racism." In short, the proposed clauses had little hope of helping Palestinians, but they did serve another, entirely predictable, function: they gave the U.S. government the perfect excuse to flee the scene.
The official U.S. delegation in Durban was led by E. Michael Southwick, a former ambassador to Uganda and a deputy assistant secretary of state under Colin Powell. A few days into the gathering, Southwick called a meeting of all the Americans attending the U.N. conference. He told them that the U.S. government was formally withdrawing from Durban because of the Israel clauses. The room of mostly African Americans exploded in shouts and boos. The South African police whisked Southwick away before he could take any questions; they told him they were worried about a riot breaking out.
At the time, most U.S. Jewish groups praised the walkout as a principled stand against anti-Semitism. The vast majority of delegates in Durban, however, saw things very differently: in their view, the U.S. had never wanted to be part of these discussions, and it had seized on the clauses about Israel—which everyone knew would not survive the negotiations—as "a flimsy excuse," in Dudley Thompson’s words.
Southwick, now retired and talking about Durban candidly for the first time, told me that the skeptics were largely right. Secretary of State Powell was inclined to fully participate in Durban, he said, but others, particularly Special Assistant to the President Elliott Abrams, were firmly opposed. President Bush had declared that the U.S. would not participate in a conference "so long as they pick on Israel." Southwick says he repeatedly told the White House that he was being set up to fail (he now calls it a "suicide mission"). He was sure that he could get the offending language out of the final document, but in order to do that, he explained, he needed to fully participate in the conference. He persuaded no one.
Southwick’s account makes it clear that the Bush Administration’s decision to get out of Durban was made, for its own political reasons, before the conference had even opened—not in principled response to the anti-Semitic incidents. Moreover, Southwick was quite right: after he left, all of the offending language was excised in the final round of negotiations. Which is why, in a detail conveniently excluded by Durban‘s critics, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres praised the Durban Declaration at the time as "an accomplishment of the first order for Israel" and "a painful comedown for the Arab League."
In the end, despite the walkout, Africa was not denied its rendezvous with history. The final Durban Declaration became the first document with international legal standing to state "that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade." This language was more than symbolic. When lawyers had sought to win slavery reparations in U.S. courts, the biggest barrier was always the statute of limitations, which had long since expired. If slavery was "a crime against humanity," however, it was not restricted by the statute—something, Southwick told me, that State Department lawyers were very concerned about at the time.