The 2001 World Conference against Racism (WCAR), also known as Durban I, was held at the Durban International Convention Centre in Durban, South Africa, under the auspices of the United Nations from 31 August until 8 September 2001. Former Irish president Mary Robinson who was the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, presided as Secretary-General of the conference.
The conference was entitled “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.” The conference discussed unfair treatment of one group against another, particularly the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Violations of human rights and genocide in other parts of the world were treated only secondarily.
The conference dealt with several controversial issues, including compensation for slavery and the actions of Israel. The language of the final Declaration and Programme of Action produced by the conference was strongly disputed in these areas, both in the preparatory meetings in the months that preceded the conference and during the conference itself. Two delegations, the United States and Israel, withdrew from the conference claiming the conference was merely a pretext for the airing of virulent anti-semitism. The final Declaration and Programme of Action did not contain the text that the U.S. and Israel had objected to, that text having been voted out by delegates in the days after the U.S. and Israel withdrew.
The 2001 meeting was marked by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery, and coincided with attacks on Israel and anti-Israel demonstrations at a parallel conference of non-governmental organizations. Apart from U.S. and Israel who walked out midway through the 2001 conference over a draft resolution, the European Union also refused to accept demands by Arab states to criticize Israel for “racist practices.”
Also in the conference, African countries – led by Nigeria and Zimbabwe – and African-American NGO’s wanted individual apologies from each of the countries responsible for slavery, recognition of it as a crime against humanity and reparations called as such. The Europeans pulled together behind the UK and the best the Africans could get was a call for support for the New African Initiative, debt relief, funds to combat AIDS, the recovery of stolen government funds transferred to the West by former dictators and their cohorts, and an end to the trafficking in people. But the word ‘reparations’ did not survive.