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Global civil rights in action

August 26, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

These days we should be reading Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery and CLR James' Black Jacobins in which they argued that the profits of slavery and the slave trade helped to build Europe into the economic giant it is today. Then, we should go on to WEB DuBois and Walter Rodney who informed us that in transporting Africans over the oceans during the 18th and 19th centuries, millions of Africans lost their lives in service of European greed.

Now, we are told that no one really benefited from slavery. The First World argues that it "profoundly deplores human suffering caused by slavery and the slave trade" and "recognises that some effects of colonialism, which still persist today, have caused immense suffering". They believe these sentiments are enough to dispense with any obligation it owes the Third and Fourth worlds for its historic crimes against humanity.

"It's too bad," they say, "if the Third and Fourth Worlds don't like the [sufferation] (my word) it continues to endure because they, too, are implicated in the drama of human suffering." We should not push them any further. They have taken as much as they are willing to take. Just to show how serious they are, they (that is, the US) may not even attend the conference.

This might be a crude way of putting things, but these are the arguments the United States and the European Union are putting forward as the world (194 nations and over 10,000 delegates) prepare for the UN Conference Against Racism, scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7, 2001. Things, it seems, have gotten a bit unruly as the descendants of slaves suggest that Europeans and Americans should think of repaying Africans for two centuries of pillage on the African continent and their unpaid labour on American plantations (South, North, Central and the Caribbean) that laid the basis for their contemporary prosperity.

There are other issues as well. Some Arab countries argue that Zionism has had the same effect as racism in that it has made millions of Palestinian people second-class citizens in their own lands in spite of UN conventions that say they should not be there in the first place. Yet, Israel and the US are adamant. This issue should not be placed on the agenda. Mary Robinson, the Human Rights Commissioner of the UN, has argued: "If there is an attempt to revive the idea of Zionism as racism we will not have a successful conference. It is not appropriate to reopen the question of Zionism and racism. It would produce a deep sense of dismay." (London Guardian, July 28).

Even India is trying to keep the treatment of the untouchables, or Dalits, off the agenda. Described as "the hidden apartheid of segregation and modern-day slavery", the New York-based Human Rights Watch, a key non-governmental participant at the conference, argues that this problem affects 250 million people, mainly in Asian and Arab states. The Indian government argues that its caste system that keeps millions of untouchables in an inferior position is not discriminatory and should not be a part of the global civil rights agenda. It is part of a religious system that is nobody's business but theirs.

Yet, after all is said and done, it is reparations and Zionism as racism that make the West uneasy. The African, Caribbean and Latin American countries want to include references to slavery and colonialism and to talk about reparations. The EU (Britain, in particular) and the US refuse to accept slavery and colonialism as constituting a "crime against humanity" and point out "the west was far from alone in practicing slavery and other oppressive forms of labour. For centuries, there was a slave trade between India, Africa and the Arab world. Numerous African peoples enslaved one another, and there were repeated tides of ethnic conquest in what is now China" (London Guardian, August 4). They query, somewhat defensively, should these countries be asked to pay reparations also?

This is part of the West's justification as it tries to evade its historic responsibility to the African, African-American and Caribbean world. Yet, the US government is really concerned. Regardless of what this conference says, next year some African lawyers in the US will bring suit against it for compensation for slavery. That cannot be good news for a government that has painted itself as the world's champion of human rights even as it conveniently forgets its history and tries to evade its moral responsibility towards Africans.

There is yet another charge that hovers over the US governmental horizon at this important conference. It concerns the way it handles drug convictions that place hundreds of thousands of African men in its prisons. The Campaign to End Race Discrimination in the War on Drugs, a team of American lawyers, clergy and drug experts, has argued that although African Americans are 13 per cent of drug users, they represent 35 per cent of the arrests for drug possession, 55 per cent of the convictions, and 74 per cent of the prison sentences. Although whites consume the most drugs, more African men and women wind up in prison for its abuse. This cannot be just or right.

Although the US and her European allies may wish to describe this conference as an "unproductive debate about reparations payment," many in the Third World see it as the beginning of a valuable debate about the historic sins Europeans committed against African people and a place where related issues (how Israel treats the Palestinian people; how India treats its untouchables; how xenophobia and ethnic intolerance affect refugees and migrants, etc,) should be discussed. In this regard, the New York Times is correct. The Conference Against Racism has created "a global civil rights movement". This can only be in the best interest of the citizens of the world. Trinbagonians ought to pay special attention as this conference unfolds. It will lay the foundation for important discussions in our land.

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