Durban+20: otherness in multilateralism 20 years after the World Conference against Racism

September 14, 2021

By Javier Surasky
Program Officer Governance and Finance for Sustainable Development

At the beginning of the century, shortly after the bases for the Millennium Development Goals were defined, the world came to Durban for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The place for the meeting carried meaning: Durban, in post-apartheid South Africa.

It was announced that the event would address issues reflecting

the complex forms in which racial prejudice and intolerance were being manifested at the time. From the scars of slavery to ethnic conflicts; from the situation of indigenous peoples to discrimination based on belief; from hate speech spread though the internet to the relationship between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on sex.

Apart from the  formal results, the conference meant a shift in how the world viewed the problem, which until then had been centered around the struggle against apartheid and regimes based on discrimination, to make it more inclusive. In 2009, there was a conference to review the progress made in implementing the results promised in Durban. As is mostly the case on these occasions, the final document identified insufficient progress and renewed commitments made, but did little else. Two years later, an international event celebrated the 10th anniversary of the South Africa Conference, producing no relevant developments.

Within the framework of the annual Debate of the United Nations General Assembly, there will be, on 22 September, a high-level meeting on the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.

The situation is not easy: For different and debatable reasons, some countries with heterogeneous political positions will not participate in the event. Such is the case of Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Today, 20 years after Durban, we live in a world with nationalist-xenophobic Governments, where discrimination based on ethnicity has caused popular uprisings throughout the most powerful State in the world, united by the rallying cry Black Lives Matter; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is working with the highest number yet of people under its protection, a situation that will worsen due to the recent events in Afghanistan; Gambia is appealing to the International Court of Justice to stop Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya people; Morocco’s permanent block on a referendum for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people is sustaining the colonial rule in Africa; homosexuality is a crime in 69 countries, punished with the death penalty in 9 of them; and the pandemic has exposed how national groups and minorities are left behind as others access vaccines and treatment, as well as being statistically invisible.

The meeting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a Conference in which countries promised to redouble their efforts against all types of discrimination and against xenophobia cannot repeat the wording of past events, nor can it express commitments void of political willingness. 

Maintaining a view that defers entire groups and turns the others into enemies only because they are different, sustaining theories in which some are more superior than others, will prevent us from making progress in connected issues, such as climate change, fighting poverty, or achieving sustainable development, all of which Governments claim are their main priorities.

Discrimination and xenophobia crack any chance of recognizing others as peers, and belittles their capacity, knowledge, contributions, and world views. They have generated an unequal world like never before, and an environmental management that seriously threatens the future of our life-sustaining planet.

There cannot be a real discussion if participants do not acknowledge each other as equals. There can be no multilateralism of any kind, but even less so an inclusive and plural one, if there is no dialogue. There will be no solutions to global problems without a strengthened multilateralism that, within the framework of the COVID-19 pandemic, is aimed at rebuilding a better world.The stakes are higher than it seems. If we do not protect the seed, the tree of change will not grow. Ending discriminatory and xenophobic practices around the world is a precondition for the change we seek in the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement to be possible. This is a debt to the world’s victims, dragged since time immemorial, set in writing in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

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