iThe US terms of engagement for participation in the Durban Review Conference (DRC), a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerances (WCAR), constitute 'a major setback to the international movement to eliminate racism, xenophobia, colonialism, and imperialism' says activist Kali Akuno. He argues that the Obama administration's revisions to clauses on issues including reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of indigenous people in the western hemisphere will simply preserve the status quo ante of race, power and exploitation on a global scale.
Attorney General Eric Holder was right, that when it comes to talking about racism the United States is a 'nation of cowards'. In bullying the Durban Review Conference (DRC) to accept its suffocating terms of engagement, President Obama, like the forty-three Presidents before him, is following the time-honoured US tradition of denying and downplaying the brutal reality of racism. As we go to press, it is unclear whether the DRC organizers will successfully resist Obama's pressure.
The UN is convening the DRC to assess progress since the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerances (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. During the week of 20 April, delegates from nearly all UN member states and hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will gather in Geneva, Switzerland to evaluate the steps governments have taken towards the elimination of racism, as outlined in the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA). The DDPA is a comprehensive document that covers prevention, education and protection strategies and specific measures to eliminate racism, in all its forms, against indigenous peoples, people of African descent, migrants, displaced people and others. The document includes a focus on gender-based violence and trafficking, racial profiling and a call for reparations.
The Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA) helped reinvigorate a critical dialogue about race, racism, restitution, and reparations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Since 2001 the DDPA has served as a moral and political weapon to press for structural changes and institutional remedies to eliminate racism and all its vestiges in many of the societies in these regions. Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, and Venezuela have each incorporated DDPA principles into their respective constitutional and legal structures, including protected recognition for African and indigenous peoples, rights to ancestral lands, resources for cultural preservation, and various 'affirmative action' programmes.
This was not the case in the US. First and foremost, this was because the Bush administration walked out on the WCAR proceedings and did almost everything within its power (including economic and diplomatic sanctions against several nations) to undermine Durban and its outcomes. The events of 11 September 2001, occurring just days after the WCAR, ceased nearly all discussion of the conference and its outcomes. In the wake of September 11, the national debate about reparations and how to eliminate the structural foundations of racism in the US was virtually silenced by the political policing of the Bush administration and the domineering promotion of American nationalism by the administration and corporate media.
Many oppressed peoples in the US and nations throughout the world held out hope that the Obama administration, with its promises of 'hope', 'change', and open dialogue, would change the course of US policy and practice and fully engage the DRC and similar processes. The Obama administration's decision to continue the US government's boycott is an effort to avoid confronting the systemic persistence of racism and xenophobia and eliminate initiatives to redress past crimes against humanity. The strong-arm tactics, particularly relating to the conference's outcome document, are an attempt to bully the world into a limited, diversionary conversation that avoids the primary issues of the day: Islamophobia; the so-called 'war on terror'; Israeli apartheid and the systematic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their land; and reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere
The Obama administration's manoeuvring to squash all principled positions on these issues is more than a mere act of cowardice. Rather, it demonstrates that the Obama administration has no fundamental intention of breaking with the strategic orientation of its predecessors with regards to eliminating the structural pillars of racism that shape the US 'project' and the modern capitalist world system itself.
The strategic requirement of the US project is to preserve the social structures built on settler-colonial foundations, and to maintain and expand its hegemonic global position to extract the resources and capital needed to maintain its 'unapologetic' way of life. The project is the direct result of the genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples and the colonial subjugation, displacement, enslavement, and exploitation of African, Asian, and Latino peoples. Its ideological pillars are white supremacy, divine providence, manifest destiny, individualism, 'exceptionalism', and 'free-enterprise' capitalism.
The rationale for the administration's boycott, outlined in the 27 February State Department's press release must be viewed through the lens of this strategic requirement. The press release was titled US posture towards the Durban Review Conference and participation in the UN Human Rights Council.
The press release was harsh by diplomatic standards and reveals how tenaciously the Obama administration clings to the prerogatives of the imperial project: 'Sadly, however, the document being negotiated has gone from bad to worse, and the current text of the draft outcome document is not salvageable. As a result, the United States will not engage in further negotiations on this text, nor will we participate in a conference based on this text. A conference based on this text would be a missed opportunity to speak clearly about the persistent problem of racism.
The United States remains open to a positive result in Geneva based on a document that takes a constructive approach to tackling the challenges of racism and discrimination. The US believes any viable text for the Review Conference must be shortened and not reaffirm in toto the flawed 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA). It must not single out any one country [namely Israel] or conflict, nor embrace the troubling concept of 'defamation of religion'. The US also believes an acceptable document should not go further than the DDPA on the issue of reparations for slavery.
It is important to look at the provisions of the original draft Outcome Document issued on 23 January 2009, that the Obama administration is objecting to.
The Palestinians, Israeli Apartheid, and Zionism
Paragraph 31: 'Reiterates that the Palestinian people have the inalienable right to self-determination and that, in order to consolidate the Israeli occupation, they have been subjected to unlawful collective punishment, torture, economic blockade, severe restriction of movement and arbitrary closure of their territories. Also notes with concern that illegal settlements continue to be built in the occupied Arab territories since 1967.'
Paragraph 32: 'Reaffirms that a foreign occupation founded on settlements, laws based on racial discrimination with the aim of continuing domination of the occupied territories as well as the practice of reinforcing a total military blockade, isolating towns, villages and cities from one another, totally contradicts the purpose and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and constitutes a serious violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, a crime against humanity, a contemporary form of apartheid and serious threat to international peace and security and violates the basic principles of international human rights law.'
Support for the Zionist settler-colonial project is a corner stone of US imperialism. Maintaining the Israeli state is essential for US geo-strategic positioning, political control of the region and its peoples, and vital resource extraction and control (oil, gas, and increasingly water). That the US is not only supportive of the Israeli apartheid matrix of domination over the Palestinian people and their land, but is also the major financier, should not be viewed as an aberration of US policy or principle. The US has a long history of giving uncritical support to avowedly racist settler-colonial projects, like South Africa and Australia. In defending these projects, it is fundamentally defending and justifying its own existence as a European settler-project vested in maintaining its control over stolen lands. In choosing to boycott the DRC in defence of Israel and its apartheid system, the Obama administration is merely demonstrating its overall commitment to these projects and the global system that reaffirms and reinforces them.
Islamophobia and the defamation of religion
Paragraph 53: 'Acknowledges that a most disturbing phenomenon is the intellectual and ideological validation of Islamophobia...'
Paragraph 160: 'Calls on States to develop, and where appropriate to incorporate, permissible limitations on the exercise of the right to freedom and of expression into national legislation;' [relating to the defamation of religion, which the US identifies as a threat to freedom of speech and expression].
The Obama administration is opposed to the references against Islamophobia and the defamation of religion because of the limits it poses to the conduct of the US post-September 11 strategy of global containment. Although the Obama administration is no longer using the 'war on terror' slogan propagated by the Bush administration, the fundamental imperial strategy remains and Islamophobia is its fundamental ideological anchor. Islamophobia seeks to equate the religion and practice of Islam with 'terrorism', sexism, anti-Semitism, and anti-liberalism, and reduce it to a racialised practice defined by people of Arab, North African, Central and South Asian descent. This equation justifies the 'othering' of the religion and its adherents and renders them easy targets for elimination.
Reparations, slavery, and genocide
Paragraph 156: 'Urges States that have not yet condemned, apologised and paid reparations for the grave and massive violations as well as the massive human suffering caused by slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide, to do so at the earliest.'
If the United States were to comply with the demand for restitution and reparations for the crimes of genocide and slavery, the US, as presently constituted, would fundamentally cease to exist. Complying with this demand means that it would have to restructure its economy to equitably manage and distribute the indemnity. And just as critically, it would have to alter its relationship with indigenous peoples and relinquish all claims to sovereignty over the lands it possesses.
Will Obama prevail?
As of 17 March, all of the critical points raised above have been removed from the Draft Outcome Document. This evisceration is a direct result of the bullying of the Obama administration and its allies: The ex-officio imperial powers of Europe and their settler-colonial offshoots (namely Australia, Canada and Israel). These states cannot afford - either structurally or programmatically - to address the crimes against humanity that they profited from and/or were founded upon. They also desperately don't want to be confronted or exposed for the failings of their present policies, practices, and social outcomes.
This is especially true of the US. The eight years of the Bush regime constituted one of the most egregious periods of racism, racial profiling and xenophobia on a world scale in recent history. In choosing not to 'look into the past' as it were, to prosecute the Bush regime for its numerous human rights violations or seek justifiable restitution for the multitude of its domestic and international victims, the Obama administration is in fact sanctioning these crimes. Obama rationalises this sanctioning as an attempt to preserve racial 'harmony' and domestic social order against white reaction. In fact, it breeds impunity and preserves the wholly inequitable status quo. Answering for the crimes of the Bush regime is not the only reason the Obama administration doesn't want to engage the DRC however. It also doesn't want its weak civil and human commitments to be exposed and scrutinised before the world. It is not an accident therefore, that despite a person of African descent sitting as its head, that the US is leading the charge of sabotaging the DRC.
The revisions imposed by the Obama administration constitute a major setback to the international movement to eliminate racism, xenophobia, colonialism, and imperialism. They preserve the status quo ante of race, power and exploitation on a world-scale. And they are advancing US imperialism's strategy of politically disarming the liberation movements around the world that are striving to eliminate the status quo. Eight years after the Bush boycott failed, the Obama boycott and bullying tactics are shamefully on the verge of eliminating any substantive discussion or outcome for the DRC. Anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist activists throughout the world must take decisive action to stop this political charade and reclaim the space that is rightfully ours.
* Kali Akuno is the national organiser for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). MXGM is a mass organisation struggling for the self-determination of New Afrikan people within the boundaries of the US.
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