“So why not come?” Barack Obama, Durban II and the Black Planet

April 23, 2009

Venetia Sebudandi is a great person to speak with if you want to understand how far we have come –and how far we need to go- with regard to issues of racism, xenophobia and discrimination discussed here at the U.N. conference on racism (Durban Review) in Geneva. “My country is participating because we are convinced of the importance and need to have a comprehensive approach in combating racism, racial discrimination,” said Sebudandi, Ambassador to the United Nations from the Republic of Rwanda.

She points to advances made in her country in reforming the legal system, promoting national unity and gender equality as examples of how the first Durban conference has had concrete effects. Rwanda, she said, is now “No 1 in the world with the highest of women in Parliament (56%) and a large number of women in decision making positions.” But not everything about the conference pleases her.

“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 during her speech today. She especially lamented the absence of the delegation of the government of the United States, which, she told me, “Had much to teach us because it has a democratic government, resources and experience” adding “And you have a President who himself comes from a minority. 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 reflects well the diverse responses found among the African-descended conference participants to the Obama Administration’s role around issues of racism, xenophobia and discrimination. Regardless of country, creed or political orientation, all of the members of the African diaspora I interviewed hailed the election of U.S President Barack Obama as a great global milestone.

But, after inhaling and closing their eyes at the thought of the first black President to occupy the most powerful seat on earth, many of these same African-descended participants then opened their eyes, gazed at the empty Conference chairs behind the sign saying “Etat Unis” (United States) and let out any number of thoughts and concerns about such issues as racial profiling, political participation, reparations, xenophobia, media racism, defining the transatlantic slaver trade as crime against humanity and the discrimination of migrant workers.

“The US absence is profoundly disappointing,” lamented Ajamu Baraka, Director of the Atlanta-based U.S. Human Rights Rights Network and former Southern Regional Director with Amnesty International. “This administration had an opportunity like no other to take the global discourse on race to another level -and failed. Obama missed an historic and strategic opportunity” he continued. “As someone who grew up in a country where racism still permeates every structure, every institution, he was uniquely positioned to help de-mystify race and focus in on that the global community is ignoring.”

Baraka and other African-descended feel special urgency as most countries of the world experience exponential increases in hate crimes, anti-immigrant policies and other examples of racism, xenophobia and discrimination as result of the economic crisis, according to recent reports issued by the World Bank, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other multilateral institutions.

But rather than use his influence to advance issues of racial equity around the world, says Baraka, who also hails from Obama’s former hometown of Chicago, the Administration’s absence at the Durban Review 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.”

Asked why he thought the Obama Administration chose to continue the Bush Administration’s policy of non-participation and criticism of a Durban process engaged and invested in by almost every country on earth, Baraka, who still sees possibilities in the Obama Administration, responded, “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 and several other participants also noted the absence of Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and the leaders of the NAACP, the Urban League and other national civil rights organizations, most of whom attended the first Durban conference in South Africa.

Among the groups most impacted by the Durban process, are the more than 150 million persons of African descent living in Latin America and the Caribbean, some of whom also have mixed feelings and thoughts 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 formed part of an international committee of Latin Americans and Caribbean activists of African descent who supported and lobbied heavily for the Durban Review conference to happen.

“I don’t understand how the Obama Administration went to the Summit of the Americas meeting just a few days ago or how it’s dealing directly with Iran and with Cuba,-but is not dealing with the Durban (review) 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 hear. So why not come?”

For Ilse J. Vregaud, Chair, National Slave Route Commemoration Committee of Suriname, Obama’s election represents a profound shift for those concerned about the issues she’s 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 crimes against humanity. Obama, she says, 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 that, she says, “Spit on people’s souls.”

“He’s a man for change and this conference is about change. This is the place for him to be,” said Vregaud, who, though she disagrees with Obama’s opposition to legislation offering reparations to the descendants of slaves, really likes Obama. But she still would have liked to see him at the conference. “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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