Address of High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mary Robinson

NGO Forum, Durban, 28 August 2001

Mr. President,

Distinguished Delegates and Friends,

It has been a long and a difficult road to Durban since the proposal for a Third World Conference against Racism was approved by the General Assembly in 1997. Yet, precisely because it has been such an arduous journey, I am delighted to see so many of you here, representing civil society in all its diversity.

You have come from all corners of the globe. From the Peruvian Andes and the Australian outback, from the Niger Delta to the Russian steepe, from great metropolitan centres and from small farming and fishing communities.  You have come here to Durban because each of you knows that, within your own communities and countries, within your own social groups and societies, problems of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance persist. And you know that progress won’t be made in combatting these global evils unless all parts of society rise to the challenge.

On Sunday, after I arrived, I walked around these grounds. I was greeted by Moshe More, the Director of the World Conference Secretariat of the NGO Forum and the chair of SANGOCO, Mercia Andrews, and by members of their staff. Before I go any further, I should pay tribute to them and to the International Steering Committee and the Regional Coordinating Committees for the enormous efforts they have put into the organisation of the Forum.  Everyone owes a debt of gratitude to them for their steadfastness in seeing this through and for doing all in their power to make this a success.

What struck me most as I looked at the stands representing so many organisations from so many regions was the extraordinary interest in the aims of this Conference which exists in civil society.  I saw this throughout the preparations for Durban – at each of the four regional conferences, in Strasbourg, Dakar, Santiago and Teheran, in the NGO networking meetings that took place in Gabarone, Quito, Warsaw and Kathmandu, and in the active NGO participation at each of the three sessions of the Preparatory Committee. I must tell you it has given me tremendous support, as Secretary-General of the World Conference, to know that you are on board and committed to the goals that have been set for the Conference.

I am conscious some of you are having to come in a very long way each day. All I will say is that we may be victims of our success in that so many people have come to Durban and there is a physical limit on the number of beds available. I should like to thank those private individuals who are making rooms available and to sympathise with those of you who have to put up with difficult conditions.

One novel approach I heard about is the train which is bringing women from the SADC region to Durban and which will be used as transport, accomodation and for holding meetings. This is an admirable and economical combination of functions!  It reminded me of the train journeys which many women undertook to travel to Beijing six years ago and the remarkable story I heard at the regional meeting last year in Santiago when some of the NGO participants spent over 50 hours on the road to participate. As I said, these instances reveal the dedication of NGOs to the goals of the Conference and are greatly encouraging.

I want to assure you that my wish is for NGOs to participate to the maximum extent possible over the coming two weeks. I regard this Forum as an integral part of the World Conference. I know there are physical constraints on numbers but I urge you to use your access to maximum effect.

As the Forum begins today, it is right to ask: what message will go out from Durban to the world?

I have said that Durban is ultimately about how we relate to each other  - neighbour to neighbour, community to community, nation to nation – at the start of the new century.  Such relationships must be based on trust and respect. They must affirm the equality and dignity of every individual.  They must celebrate and champion diversity.

So let us aim high over the coming fortnight. Let Durban be synonymous with a breakthrough in attitudes towards racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance and with strategies to combat all of these scourges.

Your efforts throughout the preparatory process have helped ensure that the topics to be addressed by this World Conference will be broad.  Equally important, perhaps even more important, your ideas about what needs to be done when we leave Durban and go back to our communities have played a critical role in shaping the draft programme of action that will be adopted here.

Racism — as you all know —  manifests itself in an extraordinary multiplicity of guises and mutations. It may have deeply entrenched and institutionalized structures so that anyone of a given complexion or ethnicity starts off in life with multiple strikes against them: the diet they get as a child will be lacking in basic vitamins and nutrients; the health care they receive will be of an inferior quality; their teachers may be poorly trained and their schools poorly equipped; and those in authority will profile them so the odds of them having a run in with the law are much higher than the norm.

The attribution of inferiority may be rooted in social and religious structures which predetermine - laws of equality not withstanding – that a person, from birth, will never be able to rise above their station, marry above their station, get work which is different from the occupation of their fathers or mothers.

Racism, transmuted into xenophobia, means that the “stranger, the refugee, the migrant worker, the so-called “undocumented alien” and their children — are treated with contempt or derision, are humiliated, and are denied their basic human rights.

Racism, transformed into genocidal hatred, can mean that one’s neighbour and erstwhile friend becomes a frenzied attacker, someone prepared to injure or even kill. Unscrupulous politicians may play on ignorance and fears to cling to power or fail to give the necessary leadership.

These are the dark corners of society, where the four scourges of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are bred.

I am well aware that you understand the complexity of the phenomenon we are dealing with. That is evident in the diversity of the Commissions you have established here at this NGO Forum to address the issue in its multiple dimensions: inter alia, a commission on globalization, poverty and social exclusion; a commission on hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, conflict and genocide; one on racism as it impacts on health and HIV/AIDs; and commissions on labour, criminal justice, religious intolerance, slavery and the slave trade, colonialism, and reparations. I note that you have also created commissions to deal with particular victims of racism including commissions on Palestinians, Roma, Anti-Semitism, Africans and African Descendants, Asians and Asian Descendants, Ethnic Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.

You are also, I know, aware of the intersectionality of multiple forms of discrimination — how gender intersects with race, how sexual orientation intersects with race, how poverty intersects with race.  This is a dimension which is deservedly receiving particular attention at this Conference.

Even though it has been a difficult road to Durban,  I feel it has been worth it.  Worth it for the victims who suffer daily from the impact of discrimination.  Worth it because we must never forget that those victims are looking to Durban to see real improvements in their lives.

I have stressed, and will continue to stress, that Durban must be a forward looking Conference.  We must not miss the opportunity of coming away from here with clear strategies to carry the battle against racism onto a new plane.  But I recognise also the importance of addressing the past, of acknowledging the horrors of the slave trade and the crimes committed during the colonial period.  Only by coming to terms with the past will we be really able to confront the future.

One of the most positive aspects of the World Conference for me has been the clear evidence of an emerging alliance between governments and civil society on follow up to this Conference.

I have said on many occasions that the World Conference is not an end but in fact the beginning of a world-wide movement for diversity and non-discrimination. That is why I place such emphasis on how we go forward from Durban.

I would encourage you to engage every sector of society in the ongoing struggle against discrimination and intolerance.  That means everyone - even reaching out to those you may disagree with.  We won’t make progress unless we can find ways of working together in new and innovative ways.

I urge you to continue to be the voices of victims and the watchdog of government performance. You have a key role to play in monitoring how governments implement the commitments they will enter into here in Durban.

Finally, as your own draft declaration affirms, I would ask you all to help repair the loss of human dignity and self-respect that has resulted from past mistakes; to create a climate of reconciliation and forgiveness in order to heal humanity's deepest wounds and; to promote a shift in consciousness and attitude in order to build a world based on universal values and awareness of our common identity as members of the one human family.