Is the U.N.’s Racism Conference a Waste of Time?

On Friday of this week, the U.N. World Conference Against Racism opens in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela will be there, Wole Soyinka will be there, Seamus Heaney will be there. Foreign ministers from all over the world will be there. Colin Powell, however, will not be there: He is boycotting the conference on the grounds that the draft of its final declaration compares Zionism to racism, a statement the American government considers offensive to Israel. But does it matter?

Certainly the fact that Colin Powell won’t be there doesn’t matter. To put it bluntly, were he not black, his absence would hardly have been noticed. The United States boycotted the previous two U.N. conferences on racism, in 1978 and 1983, for precisely the same reason. (The 1978 declaration proclaimed its “solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation.”) If this particular conference were not being held in South Africa, with all the attendant symbolic connotations, it is quite possible that Powell would not, under the circumstances, bother to send a delegation at all.

A more interesting question is whether the World Conference on Racism matters—or, indeed, whether any U.N. conference matters. This is a surprisingly difficult issue to explore. U.N. conferences invariably concern things we all agree are important and support causes that we all agree are good. They have nice-sounding names: Reading about them, most of us benignly assume they will achieve something positive as well. Very few people outside of the U.N. system care enough to follow up on what actually takes place—and what happens afterward.

Not that an interested party would find this very easy: The sheer number of U.N. conferences alone discourages closer investigation. In the areas of “habitat,” “women,” and “social development” alone, the United Nations will sponsor a dozen-odd conferences this year, among them the 18th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Settlements in Nairobi, the Asia Pacific Regional Summit of Women Mayors and Councillors, the Summit on HIV/AIDS in Abuja, the Preparatory Committee for the Second World Assembly on Ageing. That, of course, doesn’t include the conferences on the environment, on health, on human rights, on population control, as well as the dozens of other developmental, scientific, economic, and social issues the United Nations concerns itself with.

Nor are these conferences small events. The Durban conference will, as I say, include not only a handful of famous poets and writers and a good chunk of the world’s senior diplomats, but hundreds and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, ranging from the Association Pour L’Epanouissement
des Femmes Nomades (Burkina Faso) to the Chiefs of Ontario (Canada) to the Zoroastrian Women’s Organization (Islamic Republic of Iran). Alongside the plenary session, which will be attended by the official delegates, the conference Web site advertises an additional 40 parallel events, organized by U.N. agencies and other organizations.

One can argue that the Durban conference, the first post-apartheid racism conference to be held in South Africa, is more than deserving of all this attendance and attention. Yet it is not an exception. Even the 18th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Settlements in Nairobi, for example, a fairly routine affair, was attended by 440 government delegates from both member and nonmember states, 18 U.N. specialized agencies and intergovernmental organizations, 15 local authorities, 11 parliamentarians, 167 NGOs, and, curiously, one private sector representative. All these people required air tickets, hotel rooms, living expenses. All of them had to have stapled copies of the conference documents, translated by U.N. translators into the relevant language.

True, some humanitarian and developmental goals will have been achieved at these conferences. Decisions will be taken, contacts will be made, and jobs will be created, too—for U.N. bureaucrats at the very least. For it is an irrefutable truth that U.N. conferences almost always spawn more U.N. conferences. Reading U.N. documents, one quickly learns the code: Beijing + 5 is the follow-up conference to the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, Rio + 5 is the follow-up to the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. A PrepComm, on the other hand, is a preparatory conference in advance of a major conference. The bigger the conference, the more PrepComms are required.

Along with people to attend them, each of these pre-conferences and post-conferences also requires a travel budget, a printing budget, and a Web site—no minor outlay of resources. Equally, every time a major U.N. conference takes place, a whole new set of ad hoc institutions often comes into being as well, new committees designed to explore or monitor a particular country or problem. Over the years, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has acquired, among other things, an independent expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia; a working group on arbitrary detention; a special rapporteur on the right to education; a special rapporteur on human rights in the Sudan; and a special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967; a special representative on internally displaced persons. Each of these ad hoc institutions also requires at least minimal office and secretarial assistance. Each one will need to publish reports and analyses, again translated into several languages. All of this was paid for with money that comes from governments and originally from taxpayers. To put it crudely, all of it could be generating real jobs in real economies for genuine poor people, instead of facilitating conversations among the internationally socially responsible.

I repeat, I would be the first to concede that some of what is achieved by such activity is useful, particularly in the realm of human rights, where publicity alone sometimes has a value. But if it were not all useful—and I am certain, just from looking at the titles, that some of it is not—how would we know? No one pays much attention to these events unless there is a controversy, as there is this week, and even then all eyes are focused on the controversy, not the event itself.

Yet there is nothing inherently good or useful about a meeting of people merely because they meet for a good cause or merely because they come from many countries or merely because their joint declaration has been hammered out over many conference tables over many months. I am not in Durban and cannot myself carry out the cost-benefit analysis: I cannot measure whether this particular conference program justifies the expense, the planning, the man-hours. I can only hope that those who are in attendance are conscientious enough to do the calculations for themselves.