UN World Conference Against Racism

Report to the CAW National Executive Board on the UN World Conference Against Racism: October, 2001



Report on UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) -
August 28-September 7, 2001 Durban, South Africa

Prepared by the CAW Human Rights Department
October 11, 2001


The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) took place in Durban, South Africa from August 28 to September 7, 2001. The conference was divided into two parts, (a) a non-government organization (NGO) forum which took place from August 27 to September 3 and (b) an official UN Conference which took place from August 31 to September 7, 2001. Participating in the Conference were nearly 4000 representatives of NGO's and trade unions and 2,300 government representatives from 163 countries, including 16 heads of state.

This was the third such UN Conference to address racism. The first World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination was held in 1978 and the second in 1983. More recently, UN events have been sponsored on related issues including the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993) and the World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995).

Objectives of the World Conference against Racism

  • To review progress made against racial discrimination, to reappraise obstacles to further progress and to devise ways to overcome them;

  • To consider ways and means to better ensure the application of existing standards and the implementation of existing instruments to combat racial discrimination;

  • To increase the level of awareness about the scourges of racism and its consequences;

  • To formulate concrete recommendations on ways to increase the effectiveness of United Nations activities and mechanisms through programmes aimed at combatting racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance;

  • To review the political, historical, economic, social, cultural and other factors leading to racism;

  • To formulate concrete recommendations to further action-oriented national, regional and international measures to combat all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance; and, to draw up concrete recommendations for ensuring that the United Nations has the financial and other necessary resources for its actions to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.


  1. Sources, causes, forms and contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

  2. Victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

  3. Measures of prevention, education and protection aimed at the eradication of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance at the national, regional and international levels.

  4. Provision of effective remedies, recourse, redress, [compensatory] and other measures at the national, regional and international levels.

  5. Strategies to achieve full and effective equality, including international cooperation and enhancement of the United Nations and other international mechanisms in combatting racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and follow-up.

Although membership to the United Nations is limited to states, effective civil society participation at UN events such as the World Conference Against Racism is critical. More than seven thousands NGO delegates from around the world participated in the NGO forum in Durban. The participation of trade union delegates was coordinated under the ICFTU umbrella. The Canadian trade union delegation (17) was one of the largest groups within the ICFTU delegation. This was the first time trade union delegates participated at a UN conference on racism.


At the first UN preparatory Committee meeting (Geneva, May 2000), the conference slogan "United to Combat Racism: Equality, Dignity, Justice" was adopted.


Four Regional Preparatory meetings were held as part of the preparatory process to WCAR. All meetings were attended by the NGO representatives (including Trade Unions): 1. Europe (Strasbourg, France), 2.Americas (Santiago, Chile), 3.Africa (Dakar, Senegal), 4. Asia (Teheran, Iran).

As part of the preparations for WCAR, the Canadian government also held regional consultations across the country and a national consultation in Ottawa in February 2001. We were invited to participate in the national consultations along with the CLC.

In preparation for WCAR, an ICFTU international workshop "Trade Unions Fighting Racism and Xenophobia" was also held in Aylmer, Quebec on 6-9 May 2001. At this meeting, elements of the lobbying document and "Plan of Action for Trade Unions" was developed.

Earlier this year, government representatives of the UN member states also held three preparatory committee sessions in Geneva. The purpose of these preparatory sessions was for states to discuss critical issues and narrow down their differences in the draft language being presented within the conference documents. The conference documents consisted of the Declaration and the Program of Action. NGO's and trade union representatives also participated in these preparatory sessions to influence the preparatory agenda.


Participating in the UN WCAR was a privilege and positive experience for CAW delegates. We worked in solidarity with other trade unions and NGO delegates to influence the conference documents throughout the NGO and government processes.


To have maximum delegate participation, the NGO forum was structured to have roundtable discussions on various topics and discussions were expected to reach consensus positions that in turn, would feed into the more substantive deliberations of the Thematic Commissions. The topic of these commissions included: Africans and African Descendants, Asians and Asian Descendants, Indigenous Peoples, Dalits and other Caste-Based Discrimination, Labour, Gender, Migrant Workers, etc.. Each Commission produced a report that included a discussion of the issues and action strategies that could be taken to tackle these issues. These reports were synthesized into the final NGO document. In addition to the thematic commissions, a number of workshops were held daily during the NGO Forum.

The final document was presented to Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. When she was presented with the NGO document, Mary Robinson expressed her reservations on the language of certain paragraphs in the NGO document (controversial paragraphs 418-425).


  • A labour commission was held at the forum to develop the language for labour issues in the NGO document. A number of workshops were also held during the forum to discuss trade union issues.

  • CAW delegates participated in the African and African Descendants Caucus and Commission, the Asian and Asian Descendants Caucus and Commission, and the Administration of Justice and Criminal Justice System Commission.

  • Throughout the Conference, we also attended sessions on the issue of: Reparations, the Middle East conflict, the Indigenous Peoples struggles and Caste System (Descent-based discrimination-a major issue in the South Asia)

  • A roundtable session was held to discuss the UN General Secretary's Global Compact where his office is asking multinationals to join this voluntary body. Under the umbrella of Global Compact, multinationals' are expected to uphold human rights and implement equality policies.

  • A work place diversity session was held to discuss the need for the diversity in the workplace. Panellists among others included ICFTU General Secretary and a Volvo management representative.


  • Met with NUMSA regional representatives and exchanged information on the issues faced by trade unionists in both countries.

  • Met with the Dunlop Tire plant leadership and discussed workplace and post-apartheid impact issues.

  • In solidarity with NUMSA we also attended a strike rally at the appliance manufacturing plant.

  • The South African trade unions are currently being faced with the issue of privatization. During the conference, COSATU held rotating protest marches against privatization. We participated in their Durban march and also participated in the March Against Racism, which was jointly organized by COSATU and NGO's.

  • As a part of the Canadian trade union group we met with SANCO representatives to gain a better understanding of the work of this community-based organization. SANCO is large community-based organization spread across the country with more than one million dues paying memberships.

Canadian NGO and Government Participation at WCAR

There were over 100 Canadian NGO delegates participating in this conference. Approxi-mately 60 Canadian NGO delegates were funded by the government. A number of NGO delegates were also funded by the government to attend preparatory sessions in Geneva. A small number of Canadian NGO participants also received UN funding to attend the Conference.

The official Canadian government delegation was composed of representatives of various NGO's and government officials. Labour was certainly under-represented, with only one labour representative as part of the official Canadian delegation.

The Government Conference

  • The United States and Israel walked out of the Conference on the third day. They objected to the language in the conference document relating to the Middle Eastern conflict.

  • Despite the Canadian media focus on only the Palestine-Israeli issue, the conference dealt with a number of major issues. The final conference document did not address the issue of reparations directly, however the Conference agreed on text that "acknowledges and profoundly regrets the massive human sufferings and the tragic plight of millions of men, women and children as a result of slavery, slave trade, transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide." Acknowledging that these were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity, the Conference further acknowledged that slavery and slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade.

  • Concerning compensation and reparation by so-called "concerned states" for slavery, the slave trade and other historical injustices, the Conference recognizes that those historical injustices undeniably contribute to poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion, economic disparities, instability and insecurity that affect many people in different parts of the world, particularly in developing countries. The Conference recognizes the need to develop programmes for the social and economic development of those societies and the diaspora within the framework of a new partnership based on the spirit of solidarity and mutual respect in the following areas: debt relief, poverty eradication, building or strengthening democratic institutions, promotion of foreign direct investment and market access.

  • During the closing hours of the conference, a compromise language on the Middle East issue was also reached. "The Conference called for the end of violence and swift resumption of peace negotiations; respect for international human rights and humanitarian law; and respect for the principles of self-determination and the end of all suffering, thus allowing Israel and Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom.

  • The WCAR was extended for an extra day, once it was inevitable that states would not be able to complete all negotiations by the evening of the 7th. A draft version of the final documents were distributed on the evening of the 8th. The final conference documents are not yet available.

Since the end of the WCAR, there has been a tremendous amount of debate about the usefulness of such a conference. Most of the media reports have been negative and many have concluded that the conference was a failure because the United States walked out of the conference. I think it is important to recognize that judging the conference as a success or a failure cannot be measured on the absence of a particular country or the North American media's attempt to make it the only important issue of the conference.

The conference allowed for NGO's from around the world the opportunity to network and create alliances with each other, the ability to lobby states from around the world and the capacity to create an awareness of a number of issues that have been silenced/ignored in other international forums. The issue of reparations for slavery, the caste system of South Asia and the Palestine – the Israeli conflict was at the forefront of the WCAR. One of the Conference failure is that the struggles of the Indigenous Peoples which was not recognized or heard loudly.

Comments reflecting the mood of the conference:

Fidel Castro, President of Cuba, on the opening of the Conference, "I urge all delegations to 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 us can only be worse than what we have left behind."

Belgium Minister of Foreign Affairs, speaking on behalf of the European Union and associated States, on the Middle East, said that "a long-running tragedy was primarily a territorial dispute which should not be discussed at this Conference."

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