The racism conference was not a complete failure

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The ignominious end of the racism conference, after an extra day to resolve the squabbles over a final text very few will read, was possibly the best outcome. Nothing could have been worse than a conference in which everything went smoothly, everyone agreed that, in the words of the full title of the conference, "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance" were very, very horrible things, and the media took no notice at all.

The ignominious end of the racism conference, after an extra day to resolve the squabbles over a final text very few will read, was possibly the best outcome. Nothing could have been worse than a conference in which everything went smoothly, everyone agreed that, in the words of the full title of the conference, "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance" were very, very horrible things, and the media took no notice at all.

Instead, the conference was conducted in an atmosphere of almost continuous rancour, the US and Israel walked out and the remaining participants failed to agree on the issue of reparations for African slavery.

Thus the refusal of the Americans and Israelis to face up to the realities of Palestinian oppression was exposed for the hypocrisy it is. Equally evident, however, to anyone with a basic grasp of gesture politics was that the conference provided an easy opportunity for Muslim countries to proclaim their support for the Palestinians while doing nothing to offer them practical help.

As well as its contributions to linguistics (what, for instance, is the difference between racism and racial discrimination?), the conference performed a valuable service to practical philosophy by posing the question of the extent to which it is possible or desirable for nations to make reparation to other nations for past misdeeds.

This was linked to its most important achievement, which should perhaps have been its object in the first place. By raising the issue of reparations for slavery, the conference should have helped to lock in the rich West to a sense of responsibility for the state of Africa. A precise quantum of compensation for the historical crime of slavery may be impossible to calculate, but a general responsibility for the despoliation of a continent is easy to establish.

Despite – or because of – the fact that last week's conference in South Africa was so widely reported as a failure, attention in the West has been a focused on the rich world's moral inheritance from colonialism, slavery and exploitation. And not only in Africa, although the legacy of colonialism perhaps weighs heaviest there.

It is, therefore, devoutly to be hoped that the responsibilities of the beneficiaries, or of the descendants of the beneficiaries, from the conquests of Africa, the Americas and Australasia will be felt more sharply after Durban 2001 than before.

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