The Geneva Conference Against Racism: A participant's account

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Not long after the plane landed, the Canadian Labour Congress delegation was quick to get to work. The CLC delegation includes Karl Flecker, Hassan Yussuff from the CLC and members from PSAC, Seema Lamba, Danielle Dubuc; CUPW's Irwin Nanda, Fred Turner and Benita Raponi; and the OFL's Terry Downey (CUPE members Brian Barron, Yolanda McLean, Harminder Magon are joining us in a few days).

We have all travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to participate in the UN Review Conference which is assessing the progress member nations of the UN are making to eliminate racism.

Follow-up to landmark 2001 Durban Summit

After getting the credentials needed to enter the famous United Nations building at Palais des Nations in Geneva, delegates listened to the opening comments from Ms. Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She reminded everyone this UN Review Conference is intended to take stock of progress and implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), a landmark anti-racism document that was agreed by consensus at the end of the 2001 World Summit against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

Eight years on, anti-racism pledges and measures have not yet succeeded in relegating discriminatory practices and intolerance to the heap of history's repugnant debris, said Pillay.

As our Canadian labour delegation knows too well, the goals set out in the 2001 DDPA have still not been achieved.

Pillay states this reality should prompt member nations of the UN to seek common ground and move the struggle against racism forward. She stressed the tools and capacity for achieving the goals outlined in the DDPA are within reach if we remain committed to those objectives. Pillay urged delegates to transcend their differences and find consensus.

Hoping for consensus

We learned from Russian diplomat Yuri Boychenko, who chairs the working group tasked with preparing the critical outcomes document for the conference, that for many months there has been extensive consultations with UN member nations which has produced a new 17-page draft text, or rolling text. He expressed hope that this new version would meet the concerns of all delegations and could be adopted by consensus.

As union members, we take note of the efforts to find agreeable language that will guide all member nations to accurately identify various sources of racism, implement and share their best ideas, policies and programs in order to counter, challenge and eliminate racism.

The job is huge and the task of getting the language and the needed action right is not easy. The opening comments of the UN session expose how difficult the process has been to date. We can see that those here are trying to use a consensus model to find the right language, respecting many different perspectives.

Canada's shameful abdication of responsibility

The Canadian government's decision to withdraw from the UN process is a shameful abdication of multilateral responsibility. The persistence of colour coded economic and social disparity facing the growing number of racialized and aboriginal persons throughout Canada makes the Canadian government's absence here all the more disgraceful.

The opening session of day one comes to a close early, so the working group can continue their task of finalizing the draft outcomes document also known as the rolling text document.

We move onto the assembly hall floor to meet the UN ambassadors and ministers including the Chair of today's plenary session. Our other goal is to get a copy of the most recent revised text.

No clear statement on migrant workers, reparations

Our delegation finds a meeting spot in the middle of the UN reception area overlooking a beautiful view of Lake Geneva. We begin the task of reviewing the draft document, looking for critical issues to the labour movement. We note there are few references to workers and trade unions. We note the absence of a clear pronouncement supporting the freedom of association rights for migrant workers; modest language calling for a rigorous legal and policy regime and national legislation that will support concrete anti-racism initiatives in the workplace and our communities.

Our review of the documents brings up items like how reparations are being addressed. For example, while the documents contain language for member nations to recall and honour the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide; and although there is acknowledgment of the actions taken by countries to express remorse, offer apologies and establish truth and reconciliation commissions; we note that specific articles fail to urge member nations to pursue and implement reparations for these horrific crimes of racism.

Days of negotiations ahead

We discuss a number of issues, examining what we like and what is missing or text that could be strengthened and enhanced. We prepare a short document summarizing our input.

We agree to work in small groups introducing ourselves as Canadian union members to the UN representatives, NGO representatives and to advocate for improved language to the draft text based on our analysis.

As the day draws to a close, it is clear to our delegation we will be on our feet, meeting and engaging in global negotiations over the next few days-to secure the best possible language, ideas, policies and legislative actions that can free us all from the pernicious grip of racism.


Karl Flecker is the CLC's National Director, Human Rights and Anti-Racism Dept. He is contributing to Dispatches from Geneva, a daily blog from the Canadian Labour Congress delegation attending the UN Durban Review Conference.

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