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As a personal form of protest I did not attend the Iranian President’s address to the Durban Review Conference, the follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism and Related Intolerance.  Rather than sit through remarks from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the world’s biggest human rights violators, and witness the circus of planned disruptions and walk outs, I decided to attend one of the daily “VOICES” forums where the victims of racism share their personal stories.  After all this is a conference on racism and intolerance.

I am glad I made that decision.  In fact, I wish that the conference organizers had broken with UN protocol and opened with the voices of victims in order to remind government representatives of their obligation to fight the scourge of racism.  Perhaps if those voices had been front and center, maybe our own government would have felt more obligated to participate, instead of choosing to boycott the event.

VOICES is a compelling week-long series of conversations with the victims of racism and discrimination.  Organizer Gay McDougall, UN Special Representative on Minority Issues, opened the series, noting that “listening is a form of empowerment,” although it must be followed up by “action” and “implementation.”

The speakers in the series come from all over the world.  If the UN organizers had put victims on the agenda first, instead of government leaders, they would have heard from:

  • Tanzanian parliamentarian, Al Shaymaa Kwegyir. Kwegyir poignantly addressed the stigma faced by albinos in some parts of Africa. This genetic disorder, characterized by the absence of pigmentation, has resulted in abuse, discrimination, and poverty for many albinos. Tragically, some in Tanzania believe that albino bodies hold special powers, which has led to the death and dismemberment of albino children in order to fuel an illegal trade in body parts. Albinos are “suffering because of our skin color – this color – white color, ” Kwegyir said. The Tanzanian government has made the protection of albinos a priority, vowing to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice and has begun a national educational awareness campaign.
  • Geiler Romana, founder of AFRODES. Little known to most African Americans, Colombia has the third largest Black population in the Americas. Most Blacks in Colombia make less than $500 a year and live in extreme poverty. Caught between government linked paramilitary groups and rebel guerillas, Afro-Colombians have been displaced from their traditional homes and forced to relocate to urban areas where they are subject to police brutality, unemployment, and lack of opportunity. Romana, himself forcibly displaced from his home by armed groups, founded AFRODES (Asociacion de Afrocolombianos Desplazados), an association working for the rights of Afro-descendants.
  • Sarah White, labor leader from Mississippi. White, an African American worker in the $40 million dollar a year catfish industry addressed the domestic face of racism. She described working in slave-like conditions, twelve hour days, intimidation, sexual harassment, in which Black women are assigned the dirtiest jobs, and are monitored even during bathroom breaks in restrooms where the doors have been removed from toilet stalls. White led the largest labor strike in Mississippi, wining concessions for the workers, concessions currently under threat by the global economic recession.

For White and others, the Durban Review Conference is a reminder that racism is a global phenomena, and that we have to challenge and hold our governments accountable.