UN conference to focus on racism, TV and Net
By Clive Sawyer
The United Nations will this year mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, held on March 21 since 1966 to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre, with a special focus on racism, television and the Internet.
The event, to which Internet users will have access via a live webcast, is among the milestones in the run-up to the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia, to be held in Durban from August 31 to September 7.
The Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which 69 unarmed protesters were killed when police opened fire on them, has been commemorated since 1994 in South Africa as Human Rights Day - a public holiday.
United Nations briefing documents say that, among other issues, the Durban conference will focus on the misuse of new technologies, in particular the Internet. Opposing the use of the media to spread race hatred appears to be one of the few issues on which the conference will easily reach consensus.
In the run-up to the final preparatory conference to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, in May, battle lines are being drawn between the developed and developing worlds on the conference's agenda.
The Asian preparatory conference, which ended on February 21, adopted a programme of action to be submitted to the Geneva meeting, calling for various measures against racism.
Significantly, the conference also expressed solidarity with the people of Africa in their struggle against racism.
The Asian conference, held in Tehran, was marked by controversy when officials from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the United States struggled until the last minute to get visas to attend the meeting, and the Baha'i International Community was refused entry into Iran.
The African preparatory meeting in Dakar, Senegal, in January sowed the seeds for even more controversy, when calls were made for payment of reparations for slavery and colonialism.
In its final declaration, the African meeting called for recognition of past injustices.
A UN statement after the Dakar meeting said this recognition "would be meaningless without explicit apology by ex-colonial powers, or their successors, for those violations".
References such as these are causing tension between First and Third World countries.
Already, European Union states are making it known that they would prefer the conference to concentrate on the future and not the past, given the immediacy of solving the universal problem of xenophobia.
Asked to comment on the issue of reparations, Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said last month that resolving the problems of the present and future could not be done without addressing the past.
This week, President Thabo Mbeki was cautious in his remarks, although signalling that the issue of reparations would be on the agenda of the Durban conference.
Questioned after meeting visiting Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, Mbeki said the issue of reparations had been raised at preparatory conferences, and was being pushed by non-governmental organisations, including Native American lobby groups in South and North America.
Refraining from stating his own views, Mbeki said: "We will see what the conference says."
European officials are keenly watching South Africa's official attitude on the issue, given the country's persuasive power in the developing world and its crucial role as conference host.
At the same news conference, Kok reiterated the view of European countries.
"It is our moral and political obligation to build a common future - we must do what we can to stand together - not necessarily on what happened a hundred years ago, but on what needs to be done to give a decent future to people who deserve it."
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