Annan's Address to the WCAR

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OPENING ADDRESS BY THE UNITED NATIONS'
SECRETARY-GENERAL, KOFI ANNAN, TO THE WORLD CONFERENCE
AGAINST RACISM, RACIAL DISCRIMINATION, XENOPHOBIA AND
RELATED INTOLERANCE


Mr President (Thabo Mbeki)
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen: I declare open the World
Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

I would now want to deliver a brief statement.

President Mbeki
Excellencies
Ladies and Gentleman
And Dear Friends

Yesterday, South Africa lost a leader and our brother
and friend, Thabo, lost a father. May I ask you to
stand for a minute's silence in the memory of Govan
Mbeki.
Please be seated.

Dear friends.

Every one of us must feel the symbolism
of this moment - the conjunction of theme, of time,
and of place.
For decades the name of this country (South Africa)
was synonymous with racism in its vilest form.
But today, Mr President, you and your fellow citizens
have transformed its meaning - from a by-word for
injustice and oppression, into a beacon of
enlightenment and hope, not only for a troubled
continent, but for the entire world.
Where else, my friends, could we hold this conference?
Who could teach us how to overcome racism,
discrimination and intolerance, if not the people of
this country?


We salute your leadership, Mr President. We salute the
heroic movement that you represent.
We salute Madiba (Nelson Mandela), whose absence today
we all regret, but whose presence, in a more profound
sense, we all feel.
We salute the memory of all who struggled for justice
and freedom in this country - from Mohandas Gandhi to
Oliver Tambo; from Steve Biko to Ruth First - and, of
course, Govan Mbeki, for whom we are all in mourning
today.
And we should also mention the courage of F W de
Klerk, who faced up to the inevitable and persuaded
his own people to accept it.
But indeed, my friends, we are here to learn, not to
celebrate.
We are here to share experiences, perspectives and
assessments - of how far we have come, and how much
further we must go, if racism is to be finally
defeated.
One thing we CAN celebrate is the fact that racism is
now universally condemned. Few people in the world
today openly deny that human beings are born with
equal rights.
But far too MANY people are still victimized because
they belong to a particular group - whether national,
ethnic religious, defined by gender, or by descent.
Often this discrimination veils itself behind spurious
pretexts.
People are denied jobs ostensibly because they lack
educational qualifications; or they are refused
housing because there is a high crime rate in their
community.
Yet these very facts, even when true, are often the
RESULT of discrimination. Injustice traps people in
poverty, poverty becomes the pretext for injustice -
and so new wrongs are piled on the old.
In many places people are maltreated, and denied
protection, on the grounds that they are not citizens
but unwanted immigrants. Yet often they have come to a
new country to do work that is badly needed, or are
present not by choice but as refugees from persecution
in their own country. Such people have special need
for protection and are entitled to it.
In other cases indigenous peoples and national
minorities are oppressed because their culture and
self-expression are seen as threats to national unity
- and when they protest, this is taken as proof of
their guilt.
In extreme cases - which alas are all too common -
people belonging to such groups are forced from their
homes, or even massacred, because it is claimed that
their very presence threatens another people's
security.
Sometimes these problems are in part the legacy of
terrible wrongs done in the past, -- such as the
exploitation and extermination of indigenous peoples
by colonial powers or the treatment of millions of
human beings as mere merchandise, to be transported
and disposed of by other human beings for commercial
gain.
The further those events recede into the past, the
harder it becomes to trace lines of accountability.
Yet the effects remain. The pain and anger are still
felt. The dead, through their descendants, cry out for
justice.
Tracing a connection with past crimes may not always
be the most constructive way to redress present
inequalities, in material terms.
But man does not live by bread alone. The sense of
continuity with the past is an integral part of each
man's, or each woman's, identity.
Some historical wrongs are traceable to individuals
who are still alive, or corporations that are still in
business. They must expect to be held to account. The
society they have wronged may forgive them, as part of
the process of reconciliation, but they cannot DEMAND
forgiveness, as of right.
Far more difficult are the cases where individual
profit and loss have been obscured by a myriad of
other, more recent transactions - yet there is still
continuity between the societies and States of today
and those that committed the original crimes.
Each of us has an obligation to consider where he or
she belongs in this complex historical chain.
It is always easier to think of the wrongs one's own
society has suffered. It is less comfortable to think
in what ways our own good fortune might relate to the
sufferings of others, in the past or in the present.
But if we are sincere in our desire to overcome the
conflicts of the past, all of us should make that
mental effort.
A special responsibility falls on political leaders,
who have accepted the task of representing a whole
society. They are accountable to their
fellow-citizens, but also - in a sense - accountable
FOR them, and for the actions of their predecessors.
We have seen, in recent decades, some striking
examples of national leaders assuming this
responsibility, acknowledging past wrongs, and asking
pardon from - or offering an apology to - the victims
and their heirs.
Such gestures cannot right the wrongs of the past.
They CAN sometimes help to free the present - and the
future - from the SHACKLES of the past.
But in any case, Mr President, past wrongs must not
distract us from present evils.
Our aim must be to banish from this NEW century the
hatred and prejudice that have disfigured previous
centuries.
The struggle to do that is at the very heart of our
work in the United Nations.
This year especially, at such events as the Conference
on the Least Developed Countries, the Special Session
on HIV/AIDS, or next month's Special Session on
Children, we have often found racism and
discrimination among the biggest obstacles to be
overcome.


And in our PEACEKEEPING AND PEACE BUILDING work, we
find ourselves wrestling - again and again - with the
effects of xenophobia and intolerance.
Only if we tackle these evils AT SOURCE can we hope to
prevent conflicts before they break out. And that
means taking firm action to root them out in EVERY
society - for, alas, NO society is immune.
Last year the leaders of all our Member States
resolved, in their Millennium Declaration, "to take
measures to ensure respect for and protection of the
human rights of migrants, migrant workers and their
families, to eliminate the increasing acts of racism
and xenophobia in many societies, and to promote
greater harmony and tolerance in all societies".
With those worlds, Mr President, they gave this
conference its true agenda.
We must not leave this city (Durban) without agreeing
on practical measures which all States should take to
fulfil that pledge. It must be reflected in our
budgets and development plans, in our laws and
institutions - and, above all, in our school
curricula.


Let us remember that no one is born a racist. Children
learn racism as they grow up, from the society around
them - and too often the stereotypes are reinforced,
deliberately or inadvertently, by the mass media.
We must not sacrifice freedom of the press, but we
must actively refute pseudo-scientific arguments, and
oppose negative images with positive ones - teaching
our children and our fellow citizens not to fear
diversity, but to cherish it.
Friends,
This conference has been exceptionally difficult to
prepare, because the issues are not ones where
consensus is easily found.
Yes, we can all agree to condemn racism. But that very
fact makes the ACCUSATION of racism, against any
particular individual or group, peculiarly hurtful.
It is hurtful to one's pride, because few of us see
ourselves as racists. And it arouses fear, because
once a group is accused of racism it becomes a
potential target for retaliation, perhaps for
persecution in its turn.
Nowhere is that truer today than in the Middle East.
The Jewish people have been victims of anti-Semitism
in many parts of the world, and in Europe they were
the target of the Holocaust - the ultimate
abomination. This fact must never be forgotten, or
diminished.
It is understandable, therefore, that many Jews deeply
resent any accusation of racism directed against the
State of Israel - and all the more so when it
coincides with indiscriminate and totally unacceptable
attacks on innocent civilians.
Yet we cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a
reason why the wrongs done to THEM - displacement,
occupation, blockade and now extra-judicial killings -
should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe
them.
But, my dear friends, but my dear
friends mutual accusations are NOT the purpose of this
Conference. Our main objective must be to improve the
lot of the victims.
Let us admit that all countries have issues of racism
and discrimination to address.
Rather than pick on any one country or region, let us
aim to leave here with a commitment from EVERY country
to draw up and implement its own national plan to
combat racism, in accordance with general principles
that we will have agreed.
For weeks and months our representatives have laboured
to reach agreement on those principles.
And they have made great progress. LARGE PARTS of the
Declaration and Programme of Action HAVE been agreed,
including texts on such difficult issues as indigenous
peoples, migrants, refugees, and "people of African
descent".
Friends, this conference is a test of our
international community - of its will to unite on a
topic of central importance in people's lives.
Let us not fail this test.
The build-up to this Conference has prompted an
extraordinary mobilization of society in many
different countries. It has raised expectations which
we must not disappoint.
If we leave here without agreement we shall give
comfort to the worst elements in every society. But
if, after all the difficulties, we can leave with a
call to action supported by all, we shall send a
signal of hope to brave people struggling against
racism all over the world.
Let us rise above our disagreements. The wrangling has
gone on long enough. Let us echo the slogan that
resounded throughout this country during the elections
of 1994, at the end of the long struggle against
APARTHEID.

SEKUNJALO THE TIME HAS COME

Thank you very much.

 

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