Obama Boycott of U.N. Racism Conference Disappoints African Diaspora
New America Media, News Report, Roberto Lovato Posted: Apr 24, 2009
Editor's Note: Representatives of the African Diaspora at the U.N. Conference on Racism hailed the election of U.S. President Barack Obama as a global milestone, but the sight of empty chairs behind the sign “Etat Unis” (United States) seemed to overshadow the excitement about Obama’s historic election. Roberto Lovato, NAM's contributing associate editor spoke to some of them in Geneva.
GENEVA – Venetia Sebudandi is a great person to speak with if you want to understand how important the United Nations Conference on Racism is.
After a 1994 genocide in her homeland of Rwanda left 800,000 people dead and the country divided along ethnic lines, Sebudandi said the first U.N. conference held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, helped her country make reforms that have led to national unity and gender equality.
“My country is participating because we are convinced of the importance and need to have a comprehensive approach in combating racism [and] racial discrimination,” said Sebudandi, who is Rwanda’s ambassador to the U.N., in an address to the conference.
Therefore, Sebudandi was not pleased that some countries chose to boycott such an important convention, which was dubbed the Durban Review Conference.
“It is regrettable that in the process of negotiations leading to this conference no flexibility was found to enable the participation of states that have stayed out of this conference,” she declared.
Sebudandi especially lamented the absence of the United States, a country she said had much to teach the world because it has a democratic government, resources and experience in dealing with issues of racism.
“And you have a president who himself comes from a minority,” she said. “I’m sure he has his reasons for not coming, but we would have liked his country to be here.”
Sebudandi’s mix of enthusiasm and concern was echoed in the responses by various conference participants of African descent to the Obama Administration’s role around issues of racism, xenophobia and discrimination. Regardless of country, creed or political orientation, representatives of the African Diaspora here hailed the election of U.S. President Barack Obama as a global milestone. But the sight of empty chairs behind the sign “États-Unis” (United States) seemed to overshadow the excitement about Obama’s historic election to the most powerful seat on Earth.
In an April 18 press release, Robert Wood, the State Department’s acting spokesman, said the United States decided to boycott the conference because of a disagreement on the language of a resolution.
“It singles out one particular conflict and prejudices key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” Wood wrote.
But Ajamu Baraka, director of the Atlanta-based U.S. Human Rights Network and a former southern regional director at Amnesty International, said the U.S. should have still attended the conference.
“The U.S. absence is profoundly disappointing,” Baraka said. “This administration had an opportunity like no other to take the global discourse on race to another level [but it] failed. As someone who grew up in a country where racism still permeates every structure, every institution, he was uniquely positioned to help demystify race and focus in on what the global community is ignoring.”
Baraka said U.S. leadership especially was needed because of the current global economic crisis, which the World Bank and other multilateral institutions say has increased hate crimes, anti-immigrant policies and other forms of racism and xenophobia around the world.
The U.S. absence at the conference “enabled nations deeply implicated in the slave trade and colonial experience to continue avoiding any accountability and real resolution around issues that remain unresolved,” said Baraka.
Baraka speculated on Obama’s decision to continue former President George W. Bush’s policy of non-participation in the conference.
“Some people may find it hard to believe, but it is possible for an African-American president to lend himself to advancing the interests of a white minority ruling corporate elite,” Baraka said.
Baraka and several other participants also noted the absence of the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the leaders of the NAACP, the Urban League and other national civil rights organizations, most of whom attended the first conference in Durban.
Among the groups most impacted by the Durban process are the more than 150 million people of African descent living in Latin America and the Caribbean, some of whom also have mixed feelings about the Obama Administration’s approach to issues of race and xenophobia.
“Most people of African descent that I’ve spoken to here feel that Barack Obama himself should have been here,” said Humberto Brown, who was part of an international committee of Latin Americans and Caribbean activists of African descent who lobbied heavily for the conference.
Brown said he did not understand how the Obama administration went to the Summit of the Americas meeting just a few days ago, or how it is dealing directly with Iran and Cuba, but would not attend the U.N. conference.
“In the United States the State of Black America report was just released and points to a worsening economic and social status of most African Americans – rising HIV infection and the imprisonment of huge numbers of young African Americans in the United States, all issues dealt with here,” said Brown. “So why not come?”
For Ilse J. Vregaud, chair of the National Slave Route Commemoration Committee of Suriname, Obama’s election represents a profound shift for those concerned about the issues she is most interested in debating and discussing: Reparations and declaring slavery a crime against humanity in the same way that genocide and other actions have been declared. Obama, she said, provides a living reminder of how far the world has come – and how far it has to go in terms of dealing with slavery, a malady she says, “Spit on people’s souls.”
“He’s a man for change and this conference is about change,” Vregaud said. “This is the place for him to be. “I’m sure he has good reasons, but he has to explain to the world – and especially to African descended people in the United States and around the world – why he himself is not here. I think he owes us that.”
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