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How Colonialism Bred Racism

The long and acrimonious history of racism has had an important impact on present day international relations. The historical reality, what actually happened, how colonialism bred racism, the stigmatisation of colonised peoples—the "lesser breeds without the law", the vast racist baggage that can still burden and oppress, these are complex and emotive matters.

Filipino migrant workers stage a rally against racism and discrimination targeting ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

The countries that experienced foreign rule and smarted under racial discrimination have not forgotten what they had to go through. Some form of international action has long been sought to identify and dissipate the lingering incidence of racism, which remains widespread, and the UN has been at the forefront of it. But when in the mid-1970s, under mainly Arab pressure, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution describing Zionism as a form of racism, the issue became explosive. The developing countries, being in the majority at the General Assembly and with the backing of the then Soviet bloc, were able to push through a resolution containing this formulation, but it was indignantly repudiated by the USA and other Western states, and of course by Israel.

UN Resolution

The UN resolution was passed at a time when OPEC and the Arab states had acquired unprecedented say in global affairs through control of the oil weapon they had fashioned. They were determined to right what they believed were the historic wrongs inflicted on them, and seemed to command the necessary international clout. Since then, this contentious matter has surfaced periodically, to renewed controversy and discord.
The latest outbreak has been witnessed at the UN anti-racism conference that has just been held in Geneva. Even before the conference could get going, major countries led by the USA decided they would not take part. The reason was that the draft document for the meeting reaffirmed the declaration adopted at the world conference against racism held in Durban in 2001—where the USA and Israel walked out—in which concern was expressed at the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. The draft text for the Geneva meeting made no such statement and it represents a considerable watering down of the Durban agreement, but it did reaffirm what had been agreed at the earlier conference.
This was enough to make the text unacceptable to some major delegations led by the US. They tried to have the reference removed, and when this did not prove possible, decided not to participate in the conference. Some half-a-dozen countries from the Western group took this step and many others decided to downgrade their level of representation. This served greatly to reduce the significance of the conference even before it was able to convene.
To take matters further, there was a concerted walkout by delegates of the European Union in protest against the speech of Iran’s President Ahmedinejad. He was the sole Head of State to take part and, as anticipated, he made a strong denunciation of Israel in his address.
This became the occasion for the EU walkout. Though the Europeans left, others remained to applaud Ahmedinejad. Thus, far from bridging the gap on this sensitive subject, the conference served only to emphasise the divide and reinforce conflicting perceptions.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon expressed his profound disappointment at the boycotts the conference had elicited. In his words, this was a time to "reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights and dignity and worth of us all". But already the Geneva meeting is being described as a failure of the UN—unfairly so, perhaps, for it was not permitted to get down to business by a determined group of powerful countries.
One of the major issues that had been taken up in the preparatory stages of the conference and had proved divisive is related to Islam. Migration from Islamic countries into Europe has created a substantial Muslim population in Western Europe and friction often develops between these relatively recent arrivals and older communities. Several highly publicised incidents have taken place in recent years and relations between races remain full of problems. Muslim sensitivities were seen in an effort to include a reference to "defamation of religion" in the text. But this could not pass because some Western delegates regarded it as amounting to a restriction on freedom of speech. On this issue, too, the conference seems to have had the unfortunate effect of widening the gap between people of differing views.
In 1991, the UN General Assembly rescinded the notorious resolution of 1975 but the genie has proved difficult to put back into the bottle. In a variety of human rights contexts the Arab-
Israel question keeps coming up. The Durban Conference of 2001 was thrown off the rails by it and now, eight years later, the Geneva meeting has been similarly disrupted. Nor is it unlikely that next time similar dislocation could occur, for the matter still hangs fire and no solution is on the cards. The US under its new President has initiated diplomatic activity in the Middle East to try to work for a comprehensive solution to the problems of the region. A senior special envoy has been appointed and a new reaching out to all parties has been attempted. This has been welcomed on all sides. The Geneva meeting shows, however, how difficult it is for the US to free itself from set positions in the Middle East, whether or not they advance the current diplomatic initiative. Worth noting, too, is how the faultlines on this issue extend deep into the US itself. Pro-Israel groups lobbied vigorously for a boycott and, as it appears, carried the day. But other organisations, especially black groups including the black caucus in the US Congress, were keen on US participation and have been critical of the decision to stay away.


The Iranian President’s harsh remarks have drawn a rebuke from the UN secretary-general, which is in itself unusual: clearly Mr Ban was distressed to see the conference becoming a platform for such strident denunciation of a UN member-state. It remains to be seen how the strife and anger in Geneva will affect the recent mildly encouraging signs that something of a thaw could develop in US-Iran relations. On the evidence of what happened in Geneva, all the protagonists seem locked into familiar postures which are very difficult to alter.
The disagreements at the conference raise larger questions about the prospects for the Obama administration in some of its key foreign policy goals. It has begun to address some major problems in a distinctly more accommodating spirit than did its predecessor.
Significant changes towards Iraq, Cuba, Latin America, human rights, the Middle East—to name only a few—are already to be seen, and have been widely welcomed. But the resurgence of familiar themes and demands at Geneva comes as a reminder that much remains before these intentions can be translated into reality.
by Salman Haidar ~ The Statesman /ANN ~