HE MR ASSAD SHOMAN
HIGH COMMISIONER OF THE BELIZE TO THE UNITED KINGDOM
World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
Durban, South Africa,
31 August - 7 September 2001
Distinguished Chair, Excellencies, Friends:
The Belize delegation extends its condolences to President Mbeki and the people of Africa on the death of the great freedom fighter Govan Mbeki. We best pay tribute to him by telling the truth and standing by principle.
I want to deal at the outset with two of the more controversial themes of this Conference.
Firstly, the question of the recognition of the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity and what is to be done about it.
I am appalled at the argument that slavery and the slave trade should not be condemned as crimes against humanity because they were legal at the time. LEGAL at the time? Under who's laws, and applicable to what peoples? The laws of some European colonies may have sanctioned the slave trade and slavery, but did that make them universally applicable as accepted international law?
To those that would today have the gall to hide behind such a false and immoral argument, I say shame on you! How can you expect us to believe that you are serious about condemning racism if you persist in legitimising that spurious argument?
Nor can we accept the self-serving argument that it is impossible to assign responsibility for these crimes, that the sins of the fathers should not be visited upon their children.
That may have been a plausible argument if the descendants of the African and other indigenous people that suffered as a result of colonialism, the slave trade and slavery were today free from the consequences of those crimes, were today living in terms of equality in all respects with the descendants of those who enslaved and oppressed them.
No one can honestly deny that the deprivation and misery that afflict the vast majority of mankind today are a direct result of the systems of oppression and exploitation that were put in place from the sixteenth century. And no one can truthfully say that the benefits that are being enjoyed today by a minority of mankind are not a direct result of those very systems and their modern-day equivalents.
The question of reparations must be seen in the light of those facts. We are not asking you to pay for the murders, the brutalities, the oppression and exploitations of the past. That, truly, is an unpayable debt. An unpayable debt. No amount of money that has ever or could ever be produced can pay that infernal debt. That has to be carried as a burden on the conscience of mankind forever.
No, all we are saying is: recognise that such vile forms of human oppression as colonialism, slavery and the slave trade, are not now and could never have been, and could never be, justified. And so: recognise that they were crimes against humanity, and apologise for them; otherwise, don't expect to be forgiven.
And this: recognise that many of the descendants of the peoples so wronged are still suffering the consequences of those wrongs, and take specific actions to remove the causes of their misery and oppression. The modalities of reparations are negotiable; the principle, we must abide by.
On an equally important matter, my delegation will resist any language in the documents of this Conference that questions the rights of indigenous peoples, since that would represent a betrayal of the indigenous peoples and their struggle, and a shameful stain on the integrity of this anti-racist Conference.
The second theme I want to refer to is the question of Palestine. W e recognise the tradition of not naming specific countries, but sometimes the cause of humanity compels us to dispense with diplomatic niceties and tell the truth fearlessly. The case of apartheid, and the cause of the people of South Africa, was such an exception. We recall that the same arguments were used for a long time, by the same people, to stop us from naming apartheid and the South African regime.
By focusing on apartheid we were not only supporting the right of the people of South Africa to live in a non-racist society, but also the right of all peoples everywhere who were the victims of racism. And far from denying the human rights of white South Africans, the anti-apartheid struggle recognised that apartheid was dehumanising the whites as well as the blacks. Which is why thousands of white South Africans and whites everywhere took part in the struggle, just like today thousands of Israelis and Jews the world over condemn the State practices of Israel toward the Palestinian people.
The international community singled out apartheid for particular condemnation because South Africa was a country that embraced racism in its Constitution, as the basis for its policies and practices with regard to its black citizens. The State of Israel does not have a written Constitution, but no one can deny that the lives of Palestinians under occupation are as much ruled by racism as were the people of South Africa under apartheid, with the added aggravation that many Palestinians have been expelled completely from their land and denied the right to return.
In the name of the Palestinian and the Israeli people, Arabs and Jews alike, let us now take up the Palestinian cause as we did the anti-apartheid cause, for by doing so we will be helping both Palestinians and Israelis to rid themselves of this scourge, and we will be advancing the cause of all peoples who suffer from racism and discrimination. And I say this as the representative of a country that has and wishes to continue to have good relations with the State of Israel, and that supports its right to exist in peace and security, convinced that it can only achieve this if it recognises the rights of the Palestinian people and removes all expressions of racial discrimination and other aspects of its occupation policy from its State practice. As we speak, the occupation, the killings, the discrimination continue. Let us do what we can to help stop this.
Allow me to conclude by saying a few words about my country Belize. Despite our small population we have experienced virtually all the phenomena that have been decried at this Conference. The indigenous Maya were the subject of conquest and decimation; Africans were forcibly brought and enslaved; the Garifuna people were forcibly transported in toto from their island home and dumped off the Central American coast, and later made their way to Belize and other Central American countries; the Caste War of Yucatan brought refugees that doubled our population in the middle of the nineteenth century, indentured servants were brought from Asia, and migrants have since the nineteenth century until the present come to our land. And of course we suffered the exploitation, pain and humiliation of colonialism.
Out of that history, out of that diversity of peoples, we were called upon to create a nation, which won its independence only twenty years ago. And while it was not until eighteen years ago that for the first time a school text told the truth about colonialism and slavery in Belize, there is an emerging consensus that we must know and confront our past to create a better future. In the past few years, my government has signed agreements with the Garifuna and with the indigenous Maya, recognising the rights of each as a people. We have proclaimed a state policy of inclusion, of multiculturalism, of embracing and celebrating difference.
We, of course, recognise that Belizean society today, like all others, still exhibits unacceptable racist manifestations. We are therefore engaged in a concerted and daily struggle to confront and remove all vestiges of racism and discrimination, including gender discrimination, from our society.
And so our people are looking forward to this Conference to help us to accomplish this task. Already, just a week ago, my country ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, as well as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. And we commit ourselves to carry out, with the full participation of civil society, the mandates that will emerge from this Conference, including the enactment and enforcement of necessary legislation.
Many have said that we are inspired by the South African people. They achieved victory because they carried out a relentless struggle, using all necessary means at their disposal, to fight the evil of racism. We see a people that were as implacable in the struggle as they have been generous in victory. We can do no better than emulate them.
Thank you, South Africa, for your example. Thank you South Africa for hosting this Conference and being so hospitable to us. We can only repay you by being as true to the struggle as you have been.