Durban, 31 August - 8 September 2001
Statement by Mr. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Every one of us must feel the symbolism of this moment - the conjunction of theme, of time and of place.
For decades the name of this country was synonymous with racism in its vilest form. But today, Mr. President, you and your fellow citizens have transformed its meaning - from a by-word for injustice and oppression, into a beacon of enlightenment and hope, not only for a troubled continent, but for the entire world.
Where else, my friends, could we hold this Conference? Who could teach us how to overcome racism, discrimination and intolerance, if not the people of this country? We salute you. We salute your leadership, Mr. President. We salute the heroic movement that you represent.
We salute Madiba, whose absence today we all regret, but whose presence, in a more profound sense, we all feel.
We salute the memory of all who struggled for justice and freedom in this country - from Mohandas Gandhi to Oliver Tambo; from Steve Biko to Ruth First - and, of course, Govan Mbeke, for whom we are all in mourning today.
And we also recognize the courage of F.W. de Klerk, who faced up to the inevitable and persuaded his own people to accept it.
But indeed, my friends, we are here to learn, not to celebrate. We are here to share experiences, perspectives and assessments - of how far we have come, and how much further we must go, if racism is to be defeated.
One thing we can celebrate is the fact that racism is now universally condemned. Few people in the world today openly deny that human beings are born with equal rights.
But far too many people are still victimized because they belong to a particular group - whether national, ethnic, religious, defined by gender or by descent.
Often this discrimination veils itself behind spurious pretexts. People are denied jobs ostensibly because they lack educational qualifications; or they are refused housing because there is a high crime rate in their community.
Yet these very facts, even when true, are often the result of discrimination. Injustice traps people in poverty, poverty becomes the pretext for injustice - and so new wrongs are piled on the old.
In many places people are maltreated and denied protection on the grounds that they are not citizens but unwanted immigrants. Yet often they have come to a new country to do work that is badly needed, or are present not by choice but as refugees from persecution in their own country. Such people have a special need for protection and are entitled to it.
In other cases indigenous peoples and national minorities are oppressed because their culture and self-expression are seen as threats to national unity - and when they protest, this is taken as proof of their guilt.
In extreme cases - which alas are all too common - people belonging to such groups are forced from their homes, or even massacred, because it is claimed that their very presence threatens another people’s security.
Sometimes these problems are in part the legacy of terrible wrongs in the past - such as the exploitation and extermination of indigenous peoples by colonial Powers, or the treatment of millions of human beings as mere merchandise, to be transported and disposed of by other human beings for commercial gain.
The further those events recede into the past, the harder it becomes to trace lines of accountability. Yet the effects remain. The pain and anger are still felt. The dead, through their descendants, cry out for justice.
Tracing a connection with past crimes may not always be the most constructive way to redress present inequalities, in material terms. But man does not live by bread alone. The sense of continuity with the past is an integral part of each man’s or each woman’s identity.
Some historical wrongs are traceable to individuals who are still alive, or corporations that are still in business. They must expect to be held to account. The society they have wronged may forgive them, as part of the process of reconciliation, but they cannot demand forgiveness, as of right.
Far more difficult are the cases where individual profit and loss have been obscured by a myriad of other, more recent transactions - yet there is still continuity between the societies and States of today and those that committed the original crimes.
Each of us has an obligation to consider where he or she belongs in this complex historical chain. It is always easier to think of the wrongs one’ s own society has suffered. It is less comfortable to think in what ways our own good fortune might relate to the sufferings of others, in the past or present. But if we are sincere in our desire to overcome the conflicts of the past, all of us should make that mental effort.
A special responsibility falls on political leaders, who have accepted the task of representing a whole society. They are accountable to their fellow citizens, but also - in a sense - accountable for them, and for the actions of their predecessors. We have seen, in recent decades, some striking examples of national leaders assuming this responsibility, acknowledging past wrongs and asking pardon from - or offering an apology to - the victims and their heirs.
Such gestures cannot right the wrongs of the past. They can sometimes help to free the present - and the future - from the shackles of the past.
But in any case, Mr. President, past wrongs must not distract us from present evils. Our aim must be to banish from this new century the hatred and prejudice that have disfigured previous centuries.
The struggle to do that is at the very heart of our work at the United Nations. This year especially, at such events as the Conference on the Least Developed Countries, the special session on HIV/AIDS, or next month’s special session on Children, we have often found racism and discrimination among the biggest obstacles to overcome.
And in our peacekeeping and peace-building work, we often find ourselves wrestling - again and again - with the effects of xenophobia and intolerance.
Only if we tackle these evils at source can we hope to prevent conflicts before they break out. And that means taking firm action to root them out in every society - for, alas, no society is immune.
Last year, the leaders of our Member States resolved, in their Millennium Declaration, “to take measures to ensure respect for and protection of the human rights of migrants, migrant workers and their families, to eliminate the increasing acts of racism and xenophobia in many societies, and to promote greater harmony and tolerance in all societies”.
With those words, Mr. President, they gave this Conference its true agenda. We must not leave this city without agreeing on practical measures which all States should take to fulfil that pledge. It must be reflected in our budgets and development plans, in our laws and institutions - and, above all, in our school curricula.
Let us remember that no one is born a racist. Children learn racism as they grow up, from the society around them - and too often the stereotypes are reinforced, deliberately or inadvertently, by the mass media. We must not sacrifice freedom of the press, but we must actively refute pseudo-scientific arguments and oppose negative images with positive ones - teaching our children and our fellow citizens not to fear diversity, but to cherish it.
This Conference has been exceptionally difficult to prepare, because the issues are not ones where consensus is easily found.
Yes, we can all agree to condemn racism. But that very fact makes the accusation of racism, against any particular individual or group, particularly hurtful. It is hurtful to one’s pride, because few of us see ourselves as racists. And it arouses fear, because once a group is accused of racism it becomes a potential target for retaliation, perhaps for persecution in its turn.
Nowhere is that truer today than in the Middle East. The Jewish people have been victims of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world and in Europe they were the target of the Holocaust - the ultimate abomination. This fact must never be forgotten or diminished. It is understandable, therefore, that many Jews deeply resent any accusation of racism directed against the State of Israel - and all the more so when it coincides with indiscriminate and totally unacceptable attacks on innocent civilians.
Yet we cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a reason why the wrongs done to them - displacement, occupation, blockade and now extrajudicial killings - should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe them.
But, my friends, mutual accusations are not the purpose of this Conference. Our main objective must be to improve the lot of the victims.
Let us admit that all countries have issues of racism and discrimination to address. Rather than pick on any one country or region, let us aim to leave here with a commitment from every country to draw up and implement its own national plan to combat racism, in accordance with general principles that we will have agreed.
For weeks and months our representatives have laboured to reach agreement on those principles. And they have made great progress. Large parts of the Declaration and Programme of Action have been agreed, including texts on such difficult issues as indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and “people of African descent”.
Friends, this Conference is a test of our international community - of its will to unite on a topic of central importance in people’s lives. Let us not fail this test. The build-up to this Conference has prompted an extraordinary mobilization of civil society in many different countries. It has raised expectations which we must not disappoint.
If we leave here without agreement we shall give comfort to the worst elements in every society. But if, after all the difficulties, we can leave with a call to action supported by all, we shall send a signal of hope to brave people struggling against racism all over the world.
Let us rise above our disagreements. The wrangling has gone on for too long. Let us echo the slogan that resounded throughout this country during the elections of 1994, at the end of the long struggle against apartheid: SEKUNJALO. The time has come.
We have gathered as we have, because we are united in our resolve to ensure that every human being leads a life of dignity. We meet here because we are determined to ensure that nobody anywhere should be subjected to the insult and offence of being despised by another or others because of his or her race, colour, nationality or origin.
Together we are committed to the realization of the objective that every human being should enjoy human rights as equals with other human beings, with every right and possibility to determine both their future and the destiny of their countries.
This surely means that nobody should be denied their statehood on any basis whatsoever, or turned into permanent refugees with neither the right nor the possibility to build a national home they can truly call home.
I am certain we are determined to speak with one voice to assert that no culture, language or tradition of any people is inferior, deserving of being despised, mocked and destroyed. By this means we want to make the point firmly that all peoples and all nations are mutually and each equally entitled to their identity and their national pride.
We have gathered in Durban because we have understood that poverty is not a natural human condition. Accordingly, it constitutes a direct attack on the human dignity of all those condemned to deprivation and are therefore forced to beg, to steal, to prostitute themselves because they are poor or those who resort to substance abuse to take away the pain of hunger and despair.
Understanding all this, we are meeting here because we have said to ourselves that, since poverty is not an act of nature but the product of human society, we must as this human society, together fight and vanquish poverty and underdevelopment.
We have come together, in what some believe is a new age of reason, because we know that the knowledge and the means exist in human society today in fact to overcome this poverty and underdevelopment.
The question that remains to be answered is what is to be done to deploy these powerful intellectual and material resources so that poverty everywhere becomes a thing of the past.
It became necessary that we convene in Durban because, together, we recognized the fact that there are many in our common world who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white.
Their cultures and traditions are despised as savage and primitive and their identities denied. They are not white and are deeply immersed in poverty. Of them it is said that they are human but black, whereas others are described as human and white.
To those who have to bear the pain of this real world, it seems the blues singers were right when they decried the world in which it was said - if you’re white you’re alright; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, oh brother! get back, get back, get back!
I speak in these terms, which some may think are too harsh and stark, because I come from a people that have known the bitter experience of slavery, colonialism and racism.
These are a people who know what it means to be the victim of rabid racism and racial discrimination. Among us are the women who suffered most because they had to carry the additional burden of gender oppression and discrimination.
Because of that experience, against whose results we continue to struggle to this day, as we will do for a considerable time to come, we also know what can be achieved when the peoples of the world unite to say no longer will they allow that another human being will suffer at the hands of another because of their race, colour, nationality and origin.
In welcoming you to South Africa, we welcome you as fellow combatants who joined us in struggle to defeat and suppress the apartheid crime against humanity.
Accordingly, I am privileged to have the opportunity as you, who represent the nations of the world, meet in this country, which not so long ago was the fountainhead of racism, once more to convey to you the immense gratitude of the millions of our people that you did not stand aside when that crime against humanity was being committed.
These masses are convinced that when you waged that protracted struggle, you did so because you were opposed to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance everywhere.
They welcomed the fact that you decided to convene this World Conference here in the belief that you did so because you have confidence that we too remain an active part of the world movement determined to fight on until racism ceases to define anybody’s place in society and the world.
They were happy that you would come, because this would give us an opportunity to reaffirm in front of you all that to us slavery, colonialism and racism are fundamentally repugnant.
It would give us the possibility to pledge to the peoples of the world that we will not betray the friendship and solidarity which drove you to act against apartheid and will therefore join with you in the difficult struggle to eradicate the legacy of slavery, colonialism and racism.
Those in our common universe who are defined by the blues singers as brown and black expect much of this important World Conference. They believe that something will come out of here that will signify a united and sustained global drive within their countries and throughout the world to help rid them of the suffering they bear because they are brown and black.
They entertain this hope because their suffering is real and immense. And yet they can also see that there are others who are as human as they, who lead decent lives and are certain of even better lives in future, whatever other problems they experience.
Gripped by poverty, fearful of the future because they know that tomorrow will be worse than today, forced to behave towards others as though some are inferior and others superior, simply to get something to eat, many take to their feet to flee from their lands of despair, at all costs trying to reach other countries they believe have the possibility to introduce them to a life of hope.
Our common humanity dictates that as we rose against apartheid racism, so must we combine to defeat the consequences of slavery, colonialism and racism which, to this day, continue to define the lives of billions of people who are brown and black as lives of hopelessness.
Nobody ever chose to be a slave, to be colonized, to be racially oppressed. The impulses of the time caused these crimes to be committed by human beings against others.
Surely, the impulse of our own time says to all of us that we must do everything we can to free those who to this day suffer from racism, xenophobia and related intolerance because their forebears were enslaved, colonized and racially oppressed.
It surely must be that this World Conference will say that, in all countries, both of the North and the South, the brown and black ghettos of poverty, despair and human degradation must no longer exist.
This World Conference will have to indicate what is to be done practically so that this call results in a changed and changing world in which all human beings actually enjoy the inalienable right to human dignity.
An important part of our legitimacy as Governments derives from our commitment to serve the people. Our own experience tells us that these people whom we serve always feel pain when another, who might be a citizen of other lands, feels pain.
To these masses, human solidarity is not a foreign concept. To them, this World Conference must convey the message that the peoples of the world are inspired by a new internationalism that says that we are determined to unite in action to repair the gross human damage that was caused in the past.
It must inspire them with the knowledge that as Governments, as non-governmental organizations, as countries and as peoples, we are ready now to dedicate our minds, our skills and our resources to the creation of a new world free of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
It must convey a message of hope to the peoples of the world that, together, we are resolved to work hard for peace everywhere in our universe, so that the doors open everywhere for the fullest and all-round development of all human beings in conditions of freedom, safety and security.
The Middle East cries out for a just, stable and permanent peace that is long overdue. The people of Palestine, like those of Israel and everywhere else in the world, are also entitled to pursue their fullest and all-round development in conditions of freedom, safety and security.
Our own continent of Africa also deserves peace like any other, to rescue the peoples from death and destruction and to open the doors for us, too, to develop in conditions of freedom, safety and security.
Thus will the conditions be created for us as Africans to take to the long road towards the eradication of the legacy, which is our daily companion, of slavery, colonialism and racism.
Only recently we bade farewell to a century that has visited terrible suffering on millions of people. It inflicted a terrible Holocaust on the Jewish people. It imposed a frightful genocide on the people of Rwanda. It produced criminal regimes of people demented by adherence to anti-human ideologies of racial superiority.
And yet this same century gave us a global compact in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It gave humanity as a whole the possibility to accumulate the knowledge and the means to realize the noble vision contained in that document.
We have gathered in Durban to make the commitment that this we will do and, together, to decide what steps we will take to ensure what has to be done is done.
Once more, I welcome you to this country which you helped to liberate from apartheid racism and hope that the celebration of that victory will give this World Conference the inspiration to produce the results that will define the twenty-first century as the century that restored to all their human dignity.
Gathered at this Conference, as Member States, we have at some time or another stood at the precipice. At each moment we stepped back and courageously dug deep into our strength and made a supreme effort to make the Conference the success, that really it is. It was the daring act of faith that sustained us through to the finish, because we must have said to ourselves that for the sake of posterity we must lay a firm foundation for the future of tolerance and harmonious coexistence that will be free from the cancer of racism.
Indeed, we have found our way through the turbulent sea of events. At each point along the way, we had to respond creatively to both anticipated and unanticipated events. Like the blooming and blossoming flower in the spring, we have agreed on a fresh start and a new road map. We have agreed that the depredation of the systems of slavery and colonialism had a degrading and debilitating impact on those who are black, broadly defined.
We also agreed that slavery is a crime against humanity and that an apology is necessary, not for monetary gain, but to restore the dignity and humanity of those who suffered. We also looked at the Middle East. I think everybody in this Conference could not help but be moved by the suffering they saw every day on their television screens. It was those images of suffering Palestinian men, women and children that made us here feel that this matter needed to be discussed.
Consequently, we agreed that a clear and unequivocal apology constitutes a starting point in a long and arduous journey of finding one another. An apology restores the dignity, self-worth and humanity of the black body, broadly defined. We also agreed that other remedial actions would have to be adopted to correct the legacy of slavery and colonialism and all other forms of racism. We agreed to work consciously to uplift women who have been victims of these ills because of their race and gender.
We agreed that the discrimination against and the lack of opportunities for minorities and indigenous people everywhere as a result of their origin, culture, tradition, language, standing in society and their refugee status could only be ignored to our perpetual peril. Accordingly, we have reached consensus that access to education and changing curricula to reflect the interests of every group in every society must be encouraged. We requested the media and other forms of communication medium to help promote positive values of tolerance, understanding, ubuntu-humaness and the richness of our world diversity.
We have agreed at the Conference, that the notion and the process of globalization are entering our jargon and global discourse. We have equally agreed that globalization has impacted on countries differently. It has rendered precarious the economies of countries with the terrible legacy of slavery and colonialism, while benefiting mostly the developed countries.
Wherever it went, especially in the developing South, it has left in its wake dehumanizing absolute poverty, economic marginalization, social exclusion and underdevelopment. Globalization has created the economic refugees who have taken to fleeing the misery of poverty in their countries in search of succour and better living conditions in the rich and prosperous developed countries. Unfortunately, these refugees have been at the receiving end of the worst form of racism and xenophobia.
The Conference, therefore, agreed that this process should be harnessed and directed at the most pressing challenge of our time - “poverty eradication”. Globalization has generated enough wealth and resources to do that. We also agreed to deal with the structural conditions that sustain the inequality and inequity of the global economy that in turn encourage underdevelopment and marginalization, which is at the root of racism today.
Through the Programme of Action and the Declaration we unanimously agreed to launch the Global Army against Racism in all countries to work assiduously to roll back and uproot the scourge of racism. From the intergovernmental, to non-governmental and civil society, we agreed in our various forums to work jointly in partnerships to take our work forward. The political Declaration we have just adopted is indeed action orientated and practical. It is now up to Governments and civil society to ensure its implementation.
We have agreed that coming from the centuries that entrenched chauvinism and the pernicious system of segregation, this current century must at its end serve as a fulcrum against racism and free us, once and for all, from all those outdated anti-human and anti-social ideologies whose burden we all carry up to today.
At this juncture, it is in order to express our heartfelt and sincere thanks to the Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance for the excellent service she and her hard-working team provided towards the success of the Conference.
We also wish to thank Madame Diallo and the Preparatory Committee for the groundwork which became the basis of our deliberations. Our gratitude also goes to the Group of 21, which produced proposals that helped us move forward. It is in order to thank countries that hosted regional conferences and allowed Member States to formulate their regional positions that fed into this process, Chile, Iran, France and Senegal.
Ours has been truly an inclusive and broadly consultative process. Our big thank you also goes to the members of the Bureau whose perseverance has seen us conclude our work. The interpreters who made our work easy and more manageable deserve the special mention for their unstinting work. Last but not least, I wish to thank all regional coordinators, especially Brazil, Kenya and Mexico, who led the parallel processes with utmost distinction. I also extend my sincere thanks to the United Nations family for working so tirelessly to make ours a truly successful Conference.
We thank you Member States most dearly for honouring us with your presence in the country you helped liberate through your unfeigned commitment to liquidate the most stubborn system of the apartheid crime against humanity. We apologize for any inconvenience suffered by any delegation during the Conference. I wish to thank also President Mbeki and Deputy President Zuma, as well as my compatriots for their hard work and support.
Shakespeare’s Tempest eloquently and elegantly reminds us of our beautiful world when Miranda, the daughter of the deposed Prospero, proclaims at the top of her voice “Oh brave, new world, to have such people”. Indeed you are the brave and wondrous people, and have so remarkably risen to the challenge of our time.
In closing, I want to refer to one of our finest poets, Wally Mongale Serote, who had these beautiful words to say in his work Ofay-Watcher Looks Back :