Press Release

4 September 2001

Round Table of Heads of State/Government


Secretary-General Urges Participants To Use Their Power to Enhance National Dialogue

In an interactive dialogue this afternoon, a panel of 15 heads of State and government set the stage for the opening plenary debate and the ongoing sideline negotiations that will guide the work of the historic United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The Conference, scheduled to run through 7 September, will begin its general debate tomorrow morning.

Opening the discussion, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, urged the gathering of world leaders to use their power to move their respective governments to put in place constitutional, legislative and administrative guarantees that protected against discrimination. Their leadership could enhance national dialogues on racism, and even simple acts, such as attending events sponsored by minority communities, could send the message that diversity was something to be cherished.

The panel included: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, President of Algeria; Jozo Krizanovic, Chair of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Pedro Verona Rodrigues Pires, President of Cape Verde; Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo; Fidel Castro, President of the Councils of State and Ministers of Cuba; Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia; Olusengun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria; Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda; Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal; Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, President of Uganda; Pascoal Manuel Mocumbi, Prime Minister of Mozambique; and Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority.

Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa and Chairman of the Round Table, welcomed the panellists and noted that their vision, wisdom and foresight would undoubtedly inspire the work of the Conference.

He proposed that speakers focus their interventions this afternoon on three broad themes: recalling past practices of racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; examining forms of contemporary manifestations of racism; and emphasizing the need to draw on lessons learned to identify concrete and achievable goals.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, said the Conference was being held at the right time -- as the world continued to face conflicts and other problems related to racism. But it was also located in the right place -- Durban, South Africa, which had been the site of many of the problems, and the site of many of the solutions.

Many speakers praised the progress made by the host country. Pascoal Manule Moumbi, Prime Minister of Mozambique, said he was proud to speak today as the leader of an independent country whose freedom has been inspired by the heroes of South Africa. But, the fact that there were statutes in place that renounced racism and discrimination did not mean that such practices automatically disappeared.

While many panellists highlighted more well-known manifestations of racial discrimination, the President of Senegal spoke about racism of a different sort: intellectual racism. Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal said intellectual racism had been used to distort the history of the African struggle against slavery and colonialism. Skewed research had also been used to reinforce the stereotype that blacks were paid lower wages because they were less intelligent than members of other races.

Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo, said the time had come for major decisions to be taken to correct what had happened in history and to make it possible to speak of true justice, true globalization, true development for the whole world. The Conference should clearly declare that trafficking in blacks and slavery were crimes against humanity. He appealed strongly to the international community to take a true stand of solidarity with African peoples.

Fidel Castro, President of the Councils of State and Ministers of Cuba, said the leaders gathered for the Conference had said that the work ahead would be difficult. And while that might be true, all delegations should strive to be as candid, sincere and truthful as possible, in order to achieve the Conference goals. "We must realize that if we do not succeed, what lies before can only be worse than what we have left behind", he said.

Participating in an interactive dialogue that followed the remarks of the heads of State, were representatives from Canada, Libya, Nepal, Spain, Jamaica, Philippines, Mexico and the Comoros. In addition, representatives of several non-governmental organizations spoke, including Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Law Society, and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

Questions and statements included the role of youth in combating discrimination; the issue of reparations; the use of media in furthering discrimination; the situation of the Dalit and of the Roma.

Before discussions began, Mr. Mbeki informed the Conference that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia, sent his regards and that his statement would be made available to all delegations.

The Conference will begin its general debate tomorrow at 10 a.m.

Opening Remarks

KOFI ANNAN, United Nations Secretary-General: All I want to stress is the tremendous responsibility that resides with you once we begin the all-important effort to fulfil the promises made here in Durban. With your power, you can move the machinery of your respective governments to put in place the constitutional, legislative and administrative guarantees that protect against discrimination. From your positions, you can tackle problems that fuel intolerance, such as unemployment. Even simple acts, such as attendance at events held by minority communities could send a clear message that diversity is something for a society to cherish -- and that you will tolerate nothing less.

The path ahead must be one of dialogue; inclusive and constructive and informed by respect and mutual understanding. But more than any agreement on a document reached here in Durban, the ultimate test of the success of the Conference will be whether any real progress has been made in people's day-to-day lives. I hope that each of you will place the full weight of your office, as well as personal commitment behind the struggle.


THABO MBEKI, Chairman of the Round Table and President of South Africa: We look forward to the future with hope and great expectation that the process we start here today will continue and lead to concrete measures which will benefit all peoples all over the world. The invited guest speakers' vision, wisdom and foresight will undoubtedly inspire our work.

The discussion should focus on three broad themes: recalling past instances of practices of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; examining the sources, causes, forms and contemporary manifestations or racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; and look at the future, placing emphasis on the need to draw lessons and to identify concrete and achievable goals.

VAIRA VIKE-FREIBERGA, President of Latvia: You may ask what a white women from a northern European country is doing in South Africa at a Conference against racism. It does, however, not matter what the colour of one's skin is. Racism is totally unacceptable, and basically obscene. All have to unite in denouncing it and see to it that its consequences are eliminated. My people know all about denial of rights after 50 years of foreign occupation. Discrimination is not only a matter of colour. Labelling, in any form, denies the rights of a human being and must be denounced.

Many countries have known foreign oppression and colonialism, not only as colonization by European countries as there is also colonization and oppression of black by black and white by white. We in Latvia know that we have to re-conquer the past, and live with it; recover from the past what is useful and use it as the basis for the future. We like to see the day that a human being does not have to feel labelled, but as being accepted by everybody as just a human being. We hope that this Conference will give us guidelines and principles to carry home.

OLUSEGUN OBASANJO, President of Nigeria: It might be instructive to examine the issues before us from a slightly different angle -- from a perspective that is informed by an awareness of religion and the respect for all God's creations. All religions speak of respect for others. And indeed, the Christian religion speaks of men and women being created in God's image. Now that might not necessarily mean physical resemblance to God's earthly form, it could mean an appreciation of His other attributes. With that in mind, God must have known what he was doing when he created a humankind so vastly different in so many ways. So, we must stress the notion that if God's creations were discriminated against because of the differences He himself had bestowed upon them, such discrimination must be regarded as a sin.

It was not a matter of what was unfair and unjust -- it was a matter of identifying discrimination in all its forms as a sin against God. If this point were emphasized at all levels, particularly in schools where our children could more readily benefit from the notion, all humankind might begin to move in the right direction. Highlighting the religious aspects of this issue is a great way to begin the reversal of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance.

ABDOULAYE WADE, President of Senegal: There is intellectual racism as well. Racism, in part, is based, or claimed to be based, on historical studies. The most current theory is that blacks sold blacks during the time of slavery, and that the slave traders were not the only ones responsible. Africa's history was first of slavery, and then of colonization. African peoples only won their freedom in the last half century, because they suffered through colonization after slavery finished. Years ago, no one had spoken about the black Spartacus. There are many slaves who had fought and died for freedom. Africa was conquered, but it has never laid down its weapons. Colonization never had a gap of more than 20 years without a revolt against the colonial Powers. The Africans never laid down their arms -- that was how independence was achieved. Africa knows how to fight for independence and democracy. In the United States, there is a book called The Bell Curve. It said that, based on statistical surveys, blacks occupy the lower income part of the curve. The reason is that they are not intelligent, the book says. The authors used research at universities to demonstrate that welfare does not help blacks escape poverty, and that they will always be a lower class. But a study in Senegal, responding to the book, said American blacks were victims of slavery for centuries, exploited by others. They are dominated by a class system, and the wealth engendered by it. Blacks should be able to access the same education as others. Very few African intellectuals have responded to misinformation, such as this.

PEDRO VERONA RODRIGUES PIRES, President of Cape Verde: The reason for being here is one that has moved generations of courageous men and women and continues to move many of us who have suffered racism. As it goes back to time immemorial, racism can be seen as a manifestation of the human spirit, an innate evil. The fact that racism today is perceived not as something normal but as a problem is proof of a crucial development.

With a view to a Declaration and Programme of Action, we should recall the experience of South Africa. It is of great significance that the Conference is held in this country. The most recent battle against racism was fought here. At stake was an unjust political order. My country has strong reasons for being committed to this struggle. Cape Verde was the first base for the Atlantic slave trade. Through the Atlantic port in Cape Verde, generations of Africans left, constituting the most formidable forced migration in history. Our experience leads us to believe that the consequences of slavery are felt in many societies. There are patterns of racism created by slave traders at that time. Racism is not a simplistic picture: it is complex and encompasses other factors among all people. Therefore, the struggle against racism should be a universal one.

YOWERI KAGUTA MUSEVENI, President of Uganda: I would just like to say that the idea of racism is really a lot of nonsense: all humankind began here, in Africa. Indeed, Europeans and Asians, among others, were really emigrant Africans that had moved to other places. So, if this was to be a Conference on racism, we should not only discuss abstract theories but we should also examine the truths that lay in our shared anthropological and archeological histories. All human beings began here in Africa, some just lost their colour as the moved north.

In the not too distant past, when Europeans travelled to the southern African region, they had brought with them the practice of posting "colour bar" notices, which forbade admittance of Africans to certain places within their own nation. But why come all the way to Africa if you did not want to be bothered with Africans? The simple thing to do was to stay where you were. Again, I will say that there is no merit to any racist theory. What we more normally hear is just obstructionist rhetoric.

YASSER ARAFAT, President of the Palestinian Authority: I quote from the Koran: "We have created you from a male and a female. We made you tribes and peoples to meet one another, to know one another and the most pious to God is the more worthy to God." We hope that the Conference will be a major historical turning point in the world to rid us of all forms of racism. Palestine is tormented by racial discrimination, occupation, aggression and settlements. I hope this Conference will say what is right in the face of the bloody tragedy which is a racist, colonialist conspiracy of aggression, forced eviction, usurpation of land and infringement upon the Christian and Islamic holy places. This conspiracy has thwarted all international instruments. The Government of Israel has usurped our rights, land and natural resources, and taken over Christian and Muslim holy sites. They have stolen our water. They have made refugees of many of our people and prevented their return.

At the same time, our people have always condemned all racial practices that befell the Jews in contemporary history. Our people face the most intense military campaign of a Government that insists on a military solution. This brutality and arrogance are moved by a supremacist mentality that practices racial discrimination, that adopts ethnic cleansing and transfer, and that protects the daily attacks carried out by the settlers against our people. Our tortured people, faced with the harsh treatment, looks at the Conference to stand by us. The continuing acts of racial discrimination call for a strong support for our people in its legitimate struggle for an independent state with Al-Quds as its capital and the right of return for our refugees. We still look forward to the return to the path of peace and to achieve these legitimate goals with a just, comprehensive and lasting peace for all the people of the region.

PAUL KAGAME, President of Rwanda: This Conference comes at the right time, when the world continues to face conflicts and other problems relating to racism. But it also is located in the right place -- Durban, South Africa, which was the site of many of the problems, and the site of many of the solutions. Many people know the horrors and destruction that racism brings. The problem of racism continues to take a toll in Africa, and the world over. Energies should be put together to confront it and to fight it. Some people think that there are human beings who are less important than themselves; but it is not true. Those with white skin are no more intelligent than those with black skin. In Rwanda, in 1994, the genocide took 1 million lives in just three months. This was the result of some of the myths that are brought forward by racists. In Rwanda, there are three tribes -- Twas, Tutsis and Hutus. In 1994, Hutus killed Tutsis because they believed they arrived before them. But by that logic, the Twas were there before the Hutus, and therefore could have killed them. But this was all introduced by people who came after all of them -- the colonists, the Europeans. Human beings are equal, and they have equal rights. And no group has the right to deprive others of their rights. These injustices have to be fought without reservations.

FIDEL CASTRO, President of the Council of State and Ministers of Cuba: In order to make any progress in our work, we must acknowledge the profound impact of colonialism, conquest and slavery not only on the people of South Africa, but throughout the continent and the globe. Indeed, even before Senegal and Uganda, the countries north of Africa and Egypt were settled. It is well known that Napoleon said that for four millennia mankind had been watched from the tops of pyramids. Moreover, in another hemisphere, there was a vast civilization that had thrived for thousands of years. Those people and others throughout the world were discovered, conquered and then "civilized". That was also true of indigenous populations in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands as well as Native Americans. There is no doubt that such exploitation, victimization and discrimination have left their marks.

I also share the views of others on intellectual racism. I have read the histories that have been written about the world. And as a child I saw Hollywood movies, particularly the old Tarzan films which showed Africans dancing around a boiling cauldron, preparing to cannibalize each other at the slightest provocation. In other movies, we also saw the "kind Mexican" who worked extremely well in the kitchen and got along with his master. The problem of racism is a vast one. Indeed the entire world has seen exploitation and colonization. Another problem that exacerbates racist ideas is the notion that certain races are more intelligent than others. Fortunately, science had dealt such notions a huge philosophical blow; it is now understood that there is no difference between races. Our origin as breathing, thinking beings is a shared one. With the support of scientific knowledge we can continue to defend our cause that all men were created equal.

The leaders gathered here have said the work being done at the Conference would be difficult, and while that is true, we all have to be candid, sincere and truthful so that 100 years from now we can show significant progress has been made towards achieving the goals before us. We must realize that if we do not succeed, what lies before can only be worse than what we have left behind.

DIDJOB DIVUNGI DI NDINGE, Vice-President of Gabon: Within this forum there is a duty of memory, which will make it possible to have an intellectual and ethical discussion. This will make it possible to clearly describe racism and racial discrimination as they have been practiced throughout history. The discussion will include slavery and trans-Atlantic trafficking. There is a duty to have a vision which will make it clear what is meant by racism and racial discrimination. After this, every country should know what it has to do to address this problem. There is also a duty of responsibility. When the Conference ends, the international community has to show responsibility, so that the solutions discussed here can be implemented in individual countries.

ABDELAZIZ BOUTEFLIKA, President of Algeria: All peoples on more than one occasion have made efforts, in the context of emancipation, in the quest for a better world. This Conference is neither a beginning nor an end, it is merely a landmark on the path of mankind. Mankind today is cruelly divided as a consequence of slavery and colonialism. It is divided by a past which continues to affect huge masses of mankind, marked in their subconscious by centuries of oppression. Humanity is also divided by a system of relations that inevitably condemns the poorest.

It is true that huge progress has been made in making people more aware of human rights, and the most odious forms of racial discrimination have indeed been addressed. Slavery has been abolished a century ago. Practically everywhere, colonialism has given way to freedom. But millions of people in many countries, of all races, who have fought for freedom and human rights, have seen the victory remain fragile and incomplete because the painful wounds of history are left open. Slavery and colonialism have not been officially described as crimes against humanity. The recognition of those crimes is due to their numerous victims. The Pope has given an example that could be a first step to reparations.

There is still inequality and domination by some over others. That flagrant injustice continues to affect numerous peoples, such as the Palestinian people and the people of Western Sahara. Globalization is progressively enslaving poor peoples and the poor countries of the world. The resurgence of racism and xenophobia can only be put to an end by a partnership of solidarity.

JOZO KRIZANOVIC, President of Bosnia and Herzegovina: The biggest results in fighting racism are the respect for the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have been considered in free and democratic societies around the world. Unfortunately, there is a serious concern that the goals of the previous decades have not been met. The end of last century witnessed many human rights violations that shocked the democratic world. Bosnia and Herzegovina was one such example. Over 200,000 died in ethnic cleansing, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. There were expulsions, detentions and systematic destruction of settlements. There is support for parts of the Plan of Action and draft Declaration, particularly the parts about education. Perhaps an international media forum should be held to publicize the need for a free press. There has to be support to find missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who were victims of prejudice and discrimination, and it is hoped that an appropriate place would be found in the final document to address this issue.

PASCOAL MANUEL MOCUMBI, Prime Minister of Mozambique: I would like to start by saying "thanks" to the brave people and leaders of South Africa. I can speak today as the leader of an independent country whose freedom has been inspired by the heroes of South Africa. But, the fact that there are statutes in place that renounce racism and discrimination does not mean that such practices automatically disappear. As we sit here, we must recognize the importance of history so that the roots of the phenomenon could be understood. This particular notion is crucially important as we look to identify ways in which we can battle modern forms of discrimination and other issues continue to divide our societies.

We must look closely at all issues that exacerbate discriminatory practices. The foremost among those is poverty. Indeed, poverty is behind massive migration, the spread of disease, infant mortality and violence. So the challenge before us is to make sure that in our own countries, the phenomenon of discrimination and marginalization does not become entrenched. African countries should particularly work to ensure that new leadership protects the rights of our own people to live free. As Africans we should also acknowledge cultural practices that exacerbate racisms. All these issues should be incorporated in our Plan of Action. I would like to add that if we want to fight poverty, we must identify what impedes economic growth, and for our countries that is undoubtedly the steep debt burden that we carry.

DENIS SASSOU NGUESSO, President of the Republic of the Congo: During the Millennium Summit I already asked that slavery and trafficking of blacks be declared as crimes against humanity, not for the purpose of requesting some kind of compensation, but as an act of memory. Trafficking of blacks and slavery caused enormous harm to the development of Africa. Even if we don't speak of compensation, the international community will understand what enormous challenges Africa faces.

The time has come for other peoples, who took advantage of the labour of peoples of Africa, to take measures to support the peoples of Africa, not as a matter of compensation. The time has come for major decisions to be taken to correct what happened in history and to make it possible to speak of true justice, true globalization, true development for the whole world. The Conference should clearly declare that trafficking in blacks and slavery are a crime against humanity and appeal strongly to the international community to take a true stand of solidarity with African peoples.

Exchange of Views

A college student from Canada said he wanted to emphasize the role played by youth in the fight against racism.

The delegate from Libya said the international community should applaud South Africa for eradicating apartheid, and holding free and fair elections in 1994. Libya applauds all the African leaders that held friendly relations with the country. The African Union is an initiative that was called for by Col. Ghadafy. The freedom of information should not be sacrificed, but some media undoubtedly play a role in furthering the phenomena of racism. Through the media, there was a phenomenon of hating Islam. Islam is a tolerant religion which prohibits racism. Islam, in some media, is shown as a religion with a Muslim man praying with a machine gun at his side. The modern media may play a negative role in feeding racism, if it is abused.

A representative of Nepal said he had been inspired by the issues raised by today's discussion. He noted that rapid globalization and population growth had placed severe pressures on the world's physical parameters. Perhaps the increase in conflicts was a reflection of that growth. Politics played a critical role in the manifestation of inherent differences between races that had been discussed today. He wondered if the panel could share its vision of how the international community could move faster to bring down the walls of hatred to ensure a more peaceful tomorrow.

A representative of Spain, identifying himself as a Roma, said that if there was a people in the world that understood freedom with a capital "F" it was the Roma. He said that the Roma had survived countless indignities, including the horrors of the Second World War and the sacrifice of many of their number during the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. He hoped that their plight might inspire all oppressed people to achieve the best results at the Conference.

The representative of Jamaica asked to allow non-governmental organizations to enter the hall to hear what was happening. In response, the Chairman asked that the doors be opened.

The representative of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, addressing the issue of reparations, urged the Conference to include reparations for victims of crimes against humanity and to declare that the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism were acts of crimes against humanity.

A representative of the Law Society said while it was difficult to compare anything to apartheid, in the case of Palestine, there is a system that is very similar to apartheid. Twenty per cent of Israel is Arab, but they remain second-class citizens. Israel has chosen a system of occupation which is much more cruel than apartheid. There are 64 closed military zones where Palestinians are not free to move. All forms of racism should be opposed, including anti-Semitism. But one group should not play the role of victim in Conferences, and then play the role of oppressor.

A representative of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights said just a few days ago, a young Indian boy was burned alive. What was his mistake? He dared to organize people to enter the temples of his village. He dared ask for equal wages for the Dalit people. He dared ask that children be treated equally. There is a heinous system of discrimination called the caste system. It is in the whole of South Asia, and in some countries of West Africa. It was heartening to land in South Africa, a land which has had success in fighting that discrimination. Measures should be taken to ensure that this type of discrimination -- referred to as work and descent -- is abolished. At least 240 million people across the world are affected. That is how many people would be helped if this Conference were to address this issue.

A representative of the Philippines wondered if there was a way of communicating the important comments and suggestions being made today to heads of State and government that were not in attendance so that the entire globe could work towards a brighter tomorrow.

The representative of Mexico appealed to the heads of State present to sign and ratify the International Convention on Migrant Workers. There were four more ratifications needed in order for the Convention to enter into force. In that way, the Convention could become part of the practical outcome of the Conference.

The representative of the Comoros said one island, belonging to the Comoros, was still suffering from colonialism. Many inhabitants there were dying every year as they seek to visit their family members. He asked the participants for help to liberate the rest of its territory in a peaceful way.

On the question of youth, President VIKE-FREIBERGA (Latvia) said that youth today would hopefully be different from their fathers and forefathers in being able to avoid hate. But if there is no difference, then there is little hope.

President CASTRO (Cuba) said it all begins with young people. They have to be well informed and well educated. Switching to Palestine, the West Bank was a military area, where people could not move around. Over a million people were living under these conditions. There had been talk about castes for so long, and it was impossible to have a Conference about racism and discrimination and not talk about this. The Roma people would also always be remembered here. Many of them have been persecuted. Concerning the Convention on Migrant Workers, it was not known if Cuba had ratified this or

not. But many Mexicans died trying to cross the border. It was not known how many people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, but it is fewer than the number of Mexicans trying to cross the border. The European Community talks about the free movement of capital, but not free movement of people. Cuba will seriously consider the Convention on Migrant Workers -- the number of signees might well soon rise to seventeen.

MARY ROBINSON, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the Conference, said it had been a rich debate. There was a time problem to address all questions asked. The Conference, however, had a week of discussions to go. If this was the spirit of the Conference, it had begun very well.

The Chairman of the Round Table, Mr. MBEKI (South Africa), said it was agreed that racism had no scientific, moral or any other base. In the end, it was an instrument to oppress and to exploit. All participants were committed to ensuring that that instrument was defeated and to act together to defeat all manifestations of that practice. The outcome document should enable the international community to act in one direction to build a global unity around questions which had been raised in the discussion.

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For information media - not an official record