Human Rights

04.07.1310:37 AM ET

Mary Robinson: I Had To Plead With Interpreters To Stay In Durban

In Mary Robinson’s new memoir, the former U.N. High Commissioner and Ireland’s first female president gives the inside story of the 2001 Durban Debacle and how the U.N. resolution against racism almost didn’t happen.

It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one’s mind: this is a temptation one must resist.

—Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved


In 1997, with the Rwandan genocide of 1994 still fresh in the collective memory, the United Nations had sought once more to address racism and xenophobia. A resolution was passed to hold the third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in the autumn of 2001. The General Assembly’s decision to hold the conference came during my first year as high commissioner, and my office was assigned the task of organizing the conference, which would be attended by delegations from most countries, hundreds of NGOs, labor organizations, UN officials, and others. I was both daunted and excited by the challenge.

Preparation for the Durban conference started in earnest about 18 months beforehand, and required an enormous effort on top of the heavy workload of the office. I was painfully aware that the United Nations had organized similar conferences on racism, in 1978 and 1983, both of which ended in shambles, with no consensus reached. I was determined to shepherd governments toward a meeting of minds on the sensitive topics to be discussed— topics so crucial to human rights.

Every nation, however large or small, has something to hide about racism and xenophobia: take Canada with its Inuit people, the Czech Republic with its Romani population, France with its migrants, Ireland with its travellers. The base morality of colonialism has been a powerful negative influence, but the caste systems in many parts of the developing world, as well as institutional racism, even now, in this twenty- first century, are undeniable factors.

Also to be considered are the movements of Asian and Caribbean populations into the United Kingdom; North Africans from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia into France and now into slums outside Paris; the large Turkish population in Germany. These migration issues would also be on our agenda.

When I was studying at Harvard in 1968, a number of my contemporaries travelled at great personal risk to join the civil rights movement seeking to address blatant racism in the southern states of the United States. While the country has made great strides, and most persistent forms of racial hatred may have receded, more subtle forms of racism continue for African Americans, Muslims, and other minority groups.

Ambitiously, the Durban conference sought to bring together a vast range of people with a stake in eliminating this horrific global scourge. The enormous cast included delegations from most UN member states, civil society from every part of the world, and the various UN agencies for which these issues are relevant.

Playing host, as a nation, to a World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is not exactly like holding the Olympics. Apart from South Africa, just one other country, Brazil, volunteered to be host, and even Brazil’s offer was half- hearted. By 1999, the United Nations deemed South Africa to be the better choice, and accepted its offer. In my office we were relieved and delighted that the conference would be held in Durban. South Africa— a country once torn apart by Apartheid— had shown that racism could be defeated, that progress could be made.


As host country, South Africa would have the primary political leadership role at the conference, and thus Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (a formidable woman leader, once married to the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma) would be president and chair. My role on the ground was to be somewhat limited: I would head the secretariat that would provide the services—documentation, translation, and so on—required by the diplomats and other participants in the conference. Member states would steer and negotiate the documents of the conference—a role they jealously guarded—and ultimate leadership would fall upon Zuma’s capable shoulders. As the preparatory and conference process played out, circumstances determined that I had to play a proactive role as we fought to keep the project on course. Nevertheless, as a UN official, I was determined throughout the conference to keep Foreign Minister Zuma front and center.

Delegates from countries in each of the UN regional groups gathered throughout late 2000 and early 2001 for preparatory conference meetings, “prepcoms.” The four regional preparatory events—held in Strasbourg, Santiago, Dakar, and Tehran for Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia, respectively—were each charged with putting forward their region’s collective views of what the eventual conference consensus declaration should contain. These regional prepcom documents were far from set in stone; their very fluidity was the point. They would be synthesized later into a final document in Durban.

It had been clear to me early on that holding one of the four regional conferences, the Asian prepcom, in Tehran, would be problematic. Iran, chosen by the countries of the region, was a poor choice to host a conference addressing issues of racism, xenophobia, and anti- Semitism because of its known hostility towards Israel. Tactically, it would have been better to move the preparatory meeting elsewhere in the region, but no other governments offered, probably because many had their own minority, caste, or racism issues. In its prepcom session, the Tehran meeting, held in February 2001, harshly criticized Israel for its policies in the Palestinian territories and its treatment of Palestinians and made an analogy between those policies and Apartheid. The “Zionist movement . . . is based on race superiority,” the draft declaration subsequently alleged, along with the charge that Israel had carried out “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population of historic Palestine.” All such sentences were opposed by some delegates present and, as is always the UN procedure, were put in square brackets in the text, indicating they had not been agreed upon.

At the time, I felt certain that this inflammatory language would be removed from further draft texts well before Durban. Unfortunately, as the preparatory processes went on, the states that had inserted the bracketed language in Tehran refused to withdraw it.

Looking back, I realize I put too much store in the fact that any controversial clauses put in square brackets would either be removed during the preparatory process, or inevitably would be thoroughly debated during the tough negotiations on a final text. I underestimated the hurt and anxiety words in a document would cause, regardless of whether they were in brackets or not, and that the political fallout would start before the Durban conference itself.

In my capacity as secretary-general of the conference, I was not at the negotiating table itself and could only seek to lead states in the right direction, but nothing I could do would force them to follow. I felt one of the avenues open to me was to change the narrative on tackling racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance; to grab the moral high ground with as many key leaders as I could, thus making it impossible for offending bracketed language to survive the process. One step I took was to create a vision statement that heads of state and government would be invited to sign before their delegates came to Durban. The statement read, in part, “We all constitute one human family . . . Instead of allowing diversity of race and culture to become a limiting factor in human exchange and development, we must refocus our understanding, discern in such diversity the potential for mutual enrichment, and realize that it is the interchange between great traditions of human spirituality that offers the best prospect for the persistence of the human spirit itself.”

Nelson Mandela “godfathered” the statement; his signature was at the bottom, next to mine. I hoped Kofi would sign the statement as well, but the response I received from his office was that his signature “wouldn’t be appropriate.” It was a signal that the secretary-general’s advisers intended to distance him from what was clearly going to be a difficult conference. I wasn’t entirely surprised. With the vision statement, I had gone against orthodoxy and created an unusual “outside-the-box” initiative, and the United Nations doesn’t necessarily like people at my level doing anything unusual. Nevertheless, in the months before the Durban conference began, my colleagues and I got signatures from more than eighty heads of state and government, and the vision statement was later referred to in the preamble to the Durban Declaration and Program of Action.

In the final years of the Clinton administration, the White House had demonstrated its support for the proceedings in Durban. Bill Clinton appointed a group of high- level officials at the State and Justice departments to a task force on the subject, and the administration held a series of town hall meetings on race around the country. But by February 2001 it was evident that the newly installed administration of George W. Bush had much less enthusiasm for the conference, and particularly after the Tehran meeting, their lukewarm interest turned to red-hot aversion.

I met with Colin Powell, the new U.S. secretary of state, for the first time on 8 February 2001. Initially, I felt I had his unqualified support. Indeed, I knew he would have loved to come to Durban. “But,” he told me, “there are difficulties.” Of course, we both knew that. In spite of the problems, however, Powell continued to talk to me over the coming months, his goodwill always evident.

When the criticisms of Israel expressed in the Tehran draft became public that spring, members of the Jewish- American lobby began an intensive campaign in the American media demanding that the United States withdraw from the conference. The threat of a possible walkout by the U.S. delegation rapidly became a central theme of the Bush administration’s negotiating strategy. It was soon apparent that the Bush administration had another quarrel with the Durban conference: calls for a discussion of the thorny issue of reparations for slavery and a formal apology for slavery and the slave trade, raised by the African prepcom in Dakar, were also going to be on the agenda.

I met with Powell again on 18 June in Washington. He outlined the Bush administration’s hard-line stance: if the bracketed language from Tehran were not removed, the United States would not participate in the conference. He also told me that although the United States was willing to express regret for its involvement in the slave trade, it was not prepared to use the word apology. Such an admission might have implications in litigation for reparations in national courts.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, right, and  South African Foreign Minister, Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma, left, stand side by side during aa ceremony raising the U.N. flag over the conference center in the coastal city of Durban Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2001 for the UN Racism Conference which gets underway Friday.   (AP Photo /  Themba Hadebe)
Mary Robinson, right, stands with then-South African Foreign Minister, Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma, left, at a U.N. flag-raising ceremony during the U.N. Racism Conference Durban, South Africa on August 29, 2001. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Immediately after my meeting with Powell, his spokesperson at the State Department, Richard Boucher, announced publicly Powell’s threat to boycott the conference, saying I had failed to address U.S. concerns. On 30 July, Congress passed Congressman Tom Lantos’s sponsored resolution affirming support for the Bush administration’s hard- line position on the Durban conference.

It was genuinely difficult for me to address the criticisms of Congressman Tom Lantos. I had admired him as a Holocaust survivor and a wonderful human rights advocate in the U.S. Congress. When I visited the United States as Irish president, he was my biggest champion and supporter in the Congress, and he wholeheartedly welcomed my appointment as UN high commissioner for human rights. In that capacity, I visited Capitol Hill at his warm invitation. I very much regret that Tom and I never reconciled our differences about Durban before his untimely death in 2008.

It is understandable, but regrettable, that Tom Lantos and others did not fully comprehend the bureaucratic and formalistic ways of the United Nations when negotiating the documents of a world conference. In particular, critics failed to appreciate that wording put forward by some governments and noted in square brackets when consensus was not reached, was text that had no validity unless subsequently agreed to and taken out of those square brackets in final conference negotiations. The anti-Semitic language inserted by a small number of governments in square brackets at a regional conference in Tehran was duly removed during the negotiations in Durban and did not appear in the final text, but unfortunately, for many, the damage done by that draft language to the legitimacy of the final outcome could not be repaired.

At the end of July, I called another meeting in Geneva, this one unscheduled, to attempt once again to work out the conflicts over the bracketed texts. Lantos came to my office and was clearly furious that I wasn’t able to get the offensive language removed. “You are the one who is responsible for removing this language,” he insisted. “It’s your conference. You are in charge of it.” He simply couldn’t understand that I was, in this instance, powerless.

At a press conference on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, five days before the conference was to begin in Durban, President Bush announced his decision. Responding to a reporter’s query, he said, “We will not have a representative there as long as they pick on Israel. We will not participate in a conference that tries to isolate and denigrate Israel.” Shortly afterwards, I learned that Colin Powell would not be attending the conference but that, in his place, the United States would send a “working level” delegation.

The U.S. delegation was led by Michael Southwick, a former ambassador to Uganda, who headed a small team of State Department lawyers and negotiators. Worryingly, the Americans arrived with an ultimatum that was contrary not only to the procedural agenda but also to the spirit of a world conference, the very purpose of which was discussion and negotiation. Unless the bracketed language that had been inserted following the Tehran regional conference was removed within 24 hours, Zuma and I learned to our dismay, the U.S. delegation would decamp. Israel took the same position.

Zuma and others at the conference had repeatedly assured me that the offending language would come out by the end of the conference, but they insisted that negotiations must come first. Thus assured, I met with the Americans two days later, on Sunday, 2 September. (At that point they had extended their ultimatum to 36 hours.) I told the U.S. delegates that their heavy tactics were not helping and that their threatened refusal to participate fully in the week- long negotiations was “warped, strange and undemocratic.” Later that day I met with Lantos and pleaded with him to persuade the American delegation to consider that we were just at the starting point of the discussions that would eliminate the offensive language. Lantos, in turn, told me the United States would hold me responsible for the conference’s failure.

Early the following afternoon, on September 3, President Bush and Colin Powell pulled the U.S. delegation out of Durban. Powell asked Lantos to break the news to the international media gathered at the convention center—more than 1,200 journalists were present in Durban for the event—and Lantos obliged, telling reporters that the United States had “gone the extra mile” and had made an “enormous compromise” by exhibiting a willingness to discuss the Middle East at the conference. By contrast, Lantos continued, Islamic countries had been rigid and uncompromising and had “hijacked” the proceedings.

After the drama of the previous [day], there was to be another twist in the saga. I had scheduled a press conference late that morning, so I went to the South African broadcasting studio to get my makeup done. One of my advisers, Andrew Goledzinowski, found me in the makeup room. Andrew, phone in hand, told me that the U.S. delegation leader, Michael Southwick, was on the line. Southwick was at the airport. He told me that, although he had instructions to return to Washington and was about to board a plane, the United States had not withdrawn from the conference. “We will be there at a very low level,” he said, “but we have not withdrawn.” The Consul General in South Africa would continue to represent the United States.

I told him, “Can you go through that with me again. I want to be very clear; I have a press conference in a few minutes.” And so he repeated himself. I asked if he was aware that the language that caused his departure had been removed that morning. “Yes, I know that,” he told me, adding, “Why couldn’t it have happened earlier?” I tempered my frustration—I was blue in the face at this stage from explaining why. When it became apparent that the Israeli delegates were not aware of this development, I decided that Israel should be informed that the U.S. delegation “had not officially withdrawn.” In the meantime, I went to the press conference and faithfully reported, as I had been told by Southwick, that the United States was still in the conference. Two hours later my words were contradicted: the White House announced that both Israel and the United States had withdrawn from Durban entirely.

I never understood the full background, but thought it likely that when Andrew informed the Israeli delegation, contact was made directly by them with the White House and the U.S. withdrawal was confirmed. There were yet more battles to be fought in Durban. We were forced to extend the conference by a day to get the final text approved. Bertie Ramcharan was grim-faced with anxiety that consensus would not be reached. I had to plead with the interpreters to stay on through Saturday, 8 September. Some of the detail of those final hours is a blur. Kofi Annan was calling from New York; Javier Solana, the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy of the Europe an Union, was calling from Brussels. I was assuring them there would be a consensus final outcome. The UN media spokesperson for the conference had left on Friday, a rather graphic indication of how most of the UN system was distancing itself from anticipated failure.

Finally we were down to the last areas of debate, and I was able to persuade a Brazilian delegate to move for a procedural vote so that the final text, somewhat cobbled together, could be adopted by acclamation. And that was how it ended.

Although it was not a binding document in the full legal sense of being able to be relied on in a court of law, the declaration contained a solemn commitment by all the governments present. It meant that civil society organizations in each country, UN special rapporteurs, UN treaty bodies, and the UN Commission on Human Rights itself would be able to hold these governments to account for the commitments made.

Governments had expressed in the Durban declaration “profound regret” to those who suffered the effects of slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, Apartheid, colonialism, and genocide. Although it fell short of the apology many had sought, this was the strongest language yet to be used on those issues in an international document.

The process itself had brought governments to note “that xenophobia against non- nationals, particularly migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, constitutes one of the main sources of contemporary racism . . .” The national plans of action and programs that governments committed to on the broad agenda of the conference included tougher anti-discrimination legislation and better remedies for victims.

But the conference outcome has always been marred by the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. While I have been praised in some parts of the world for the positive outcomes of Durban, I have also been reviled by some parts of the Jewish community, particularly in the United States, for what is viewed as a lack of effective leadership in Durban or even, for some, anti-Semitism. It means a great deal to me that this criticism does not come from the courageous Israeli human rights groups—B’Tselem and others and Israeli women’s groups—who sprang to my defense when I was criticized by some Jewish groups as being unworthy of receiving the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2009.

I have learned to be philosophical about those who express hatred and contempt for me as a result of my actions at the Durban conference or in other statements I’ve made on the conflict in the Middle East. It gives me a personal insight, which otherwise I might not have had, into the far greater pain of the slights and discrimination so many suffer because of racism.

Excerpted from Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice.