In Spring, 2001 the Global Information Network in New York City and African Profiles Magazine held a discussion on The World Conference on Racism - Issues, Controversies, Debates. This address was given by Humberto Brown of the Black Radical Congress. He spoke about reparations and the upcoming conference on racism in Durban, South Africa.
First, Good Evening.
I'm from the Black Radical Congress, but I also represent another organization that is more regional and another one that is local. GALCI (Global Afro-Latino and Caribbean Initiative) which is an organization that is focused on the experience of Afro-Latinos in this country and the Caribbean migration here and our experience with racism and injustice.
The Black Radical Congress is an organization dedicated to the struggle for racial justice and on primary issues that we think affect black people in this country -- we have a campaign that says 'educate don't incarcerate' and that relationship is clear - that while most black kids have dropped out of school we have the largest number of African descendants in America in prison today, more than two million people, that statistic is reflective throughout the world including in the Americas.
I've been in involved in most of the pre-conferences for the World Conference on Racism. By training, I'm a diplomat specialized in International Relations. I've been at the U.N. for my country -- I'm from Panama -- so I come with some experience both at the international level and as someone who's been involved in social movements for change. I believe that the discussion of the conference becomes relevant and I don't think that it's a coincidence that the issue of reparations and the question of Palestine became the issue of discussion, it's just the issue that was forbidden to discuss and some of us refuse to be silent about issues that are important to us and we choose not to go to the conference to create another conference of great documents and great literature that yet again is buried in the files of the United Nations.
I want to start out by saying why we think reparations have become the focus of the discussion for the caucus of African and African descendants, which is one of the important caucus' of the U.N. conference, why we are focused on certain issues, why it's a historical reality for us - because it's the first time that you have people from Africa, all the countries of Africa, people of African descent from the Americas and African immigrants to Europe creating a caucus, a coalition of forces that is responding to corporate globalization and identifying how we've been marginalized, oppressed and continue to live the legacy of what slavery, what the slave trade has created and that you cannot talk about healing, you cannot talk about resolving problems, conciliation, if you do not talk about the roots of it, if you do not talk about the essence of what created this problem.
In this conference, the European countries and the United States have tried to de-link things that are linked. You can't separate them.
... I'm thoroughly convinced that the current economic order imposed by wealthy countries is inherently racist, and I want to quote someone here who is probably not very famous in the U.S. but continues to be someone that people in the third world consider to be a fighter. I want to quote Fidel, who said "this discussion is not only about racism in abstraction, but racism and development and the empowerment of countries and people to take care of themselves."
I also want to remind you that racism and development are inextricably linked. It was the drive to maximize profit and to develop Europe that led to the enslavement of Africans to work for free in the new world. It was the provision of raw materials to Europe and of a market for goods that was the impetus behind the colonization and division of the African continent. It was the need for a rationale, a basis for humane Christianity to justify unspeakable crimes against humanity that gave birth to the ideology of racism. Despite its many and varied forms, racism has never escaped disconnection to the issue of development - whether it is in relation to the extraordinary material development of the so-called north, or developed countries, or the consequences of criminal underdevelopment of the south. We think that when you talk about racism in this corporate global world we have to talk about the economic basis of it.
So the first thing the African, African descendant caucus is asking for is that slavery, the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism be considered crimes against humanity. We think that it's important that the issue of compensation be understood and I want to quote someone that is respected by all of us, Arch bishop Desmond Tutu, and the issue of reparations and I quote:
"Reparations is also crucial for the part of the process of forgiveness. You see when someone steals your pen and experiences remorse and comes to you and says 'I'm sorry, I stole your pen, please forgive me' and you say, 'yes, I forgive you' if that person goes away with your pen, you will say, 'well, you're not really serious about the whole business of forgiveness'.
Restitution where it can happen, reparations where it can happen, is an integral part of the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. If we understand that the basis of racism is an economic basis, we recognize that all the problems that the brothers and sisters describe in health care, education, environmental racism (have an economic basis). When you speak to government, when you speak to countries, they talk about the lack of resources - what we're saying that the crucial aspect of this is to understand the disproportionate way in which a few countries appropriate the wealth of most of the rest of the countries.
So we do not want to go to South Africa to discuss a resolution that means nothing. We want to have the ability to define an agenda out of South Africa. We also think that the third thing that we wanted people to focus on is to understand that modern racism, present racism is a part of that (economic) link and that to talk about racism, we are not talking about attitudes, we talking about the systemic way in which millions of people are marginalized in society, millions of people are criminalized and imprisoned.
Millions of people are denied the basic human rights of existence and for some of us who think that the world is so interconnected, I was just in Europe and I read this article that impressed me, this sister was writing about the issue of economic citizenship. Not only political citizenship. She said that 65% of the people in the Third World do not have electricity, there are numbers and I don't want to give statistics because I think the statistics game sometimes becomes serious. Most of the information that we get is produced by the World Bank and if those statistics are produced by the World Bank, why have we not done anything about it? Most of the statistics that we do analysis with comes from the United Nations and special agencies. For us to repeat the statistics does not mean we have done something about it, it means that we have integrated the data and we've started to live with this data as something normal, natural, it's part of human existence. We refute those concepts, we deny that it has to be that way.
Our strategy for the conference has been to bring the discussion to where it matters, and this conference is a very delicate conference. For example, this is the only conference where a whole lot of foundations have not put their money where their mouth is, (when) it was the woman's conference or social development conference, most of them invested a lot of money, most people knew about it. In the United States there wasn't a national conference, there wasn't a national gathering to discuss this by the U.S. government.
Why? The U.S. invested six million in the woman's conference, they have invested $250,000 at this conference, they claim they want to commit three million. We continue to see that the conference has been boycotted by the lack of money, funding. Again we're back to resources so we think that the first example of racism is the racist attitude towards this conference (WCAR), the first other example of the lack of resources shows that we have no resources because the resources are controlled by the same forces.
For those who go to World Bank and other international gatherings, we know that the discussion of globalization is how much we borrow and we continue to owe. I don't want to go through the statistics, I've just come from Latin America and a sister here raised a question of bringing visibility to Latin America, but visibility doesn't mean that they take care of the problem of the contradictions between the Brazilian government and the Brazilian people, of the majority of blacks who are marginalized and continue to live in poverty... It's the same situation we have in Columbia where a significant part of that population is Afro-Columbian and most people don't know they exist, and most people don't know that the U.S. war against drugs in Columbia is in support of a military government that has just displaced a million Afro-Columbians from their land, allowing the rightwing paramilitary sectors that work for private capital to displace them from their property.
The issue is also about Land because in various world countries African-descended people have historical land from ancestry that has been questioned by landlords. The peasants without land are in Brazil, are in Columbia, a significant amount are in Ecuador, you go to Latin America and this is a question that has to be addressed at the conference. We are asking that at the conference, we need to discuss all the issues that people have raised from health, environmental racism but we have to remember something, that this conference is a conference that took about 12 years to get on the agenda. People have been pushing for this conference. Today, we are facing the problem that the U.S. is saying that if the conference doesn't eliminate the question of reparations and the question of Palestine, they will not support it.
Now, we want to raise the issue that if this is a conference to discuss the issue of racism, then there should be no preconditions to go to the negotiation table. We also know that the U.S. has spent the last six months intimidating, provoking, calling again, naming some of us as derailers of the conference, provocateurs because we insist that some of the issues we want on the agenda should be there and that we will not accept any intimidation about this document.
Let me end with giving you a summary of what I think are the challenges towards this conference. You probably are familiar that right now in Geneva, the Group of 21, which is a group of 21 countries, are discussing the two documents that are governmental documents-The declaration and a plan of action. This is incredible. This a document that we went to two, three, different pre- conferences to get this document concluded and the U.S. and the European countries have bracketed everything that has to do with reparations, everything that has to do with criticism of globalization, everything that has to do with anything that they do not agree with. So now, two weeks before South Africa, we still don't have a document that we can agree to, that we will discuss and we will approve.
And we still don't have a commitment that this document will include all the recommendations of the prior regional conferences - Santiago, Dakar, Strasbourg France, Iran and most of those documents include the issue of reparations; they include the criticism of globalization - and if that language is not in the document, then the document does not reflect what the people of the world who met in these pre-conferences defined as important to them.
Second, when we get to South Africa, the document should be a document that is open for the civil society to participate in. Most of the governments that attended these conferences, most of them sometimes don't represent the interests of their own people. The debate, this conference is a very delicate conference because it has opened a lot of discussions between policies that governments implement, the economic situation in a lot of countries and the relationship between the government and the World Bank or the international finance institution versus civil society.
We also think that the NGOs, the different societies should have the possibility to influence the context of the document, to influence the outcome of the document. If we get to a conference where we are banned from speaking, we are banned from participating in the input, then the conference will not be a democratic conference and again we will continue (with)the issue of racism.
And lastly, I've been to a lot of U.N. conferences - the conference on social development, the Beijing conference on women - (and it brings up) the question of the effectiveness of conferences of the U.N. - Is there any continuum after the conference? You need to create an institution that will follow up, to implement what is agreed at that conference. We need to have specifically, in reparations, we are proposing that the same way you have the World Bank and the IMF who dispense from our funds and lend it to us, that you create a financial institution and that the money that is owed to people who were enslaved and oppressed, be deposited there and instead of us borrowing with high interest from these loan sharks, people have money to invest. This (reparations) is not about people getting a check in their pocket, it is about money being invested in countries which are eternally in development, which can never move forward, having money to invest without being in debt and owing (money) for the rest of their existence.
It is an attempt to change the relation of power between the North and the South, it's an attempt to change the manner in which corporate capital has started to dominate the sovereignty of country, corrupt government, and create the level of marginalisation that we live in throughout the world.
We think that if the conference doesn't address this issue, then the conference is a comedy, is a rehearsal to create a document that people are going to feel good about but does not address the needs of people who around the world, and you all know the statistics, continue to demand equality.
I am someone from the Latin American region and I must say, some of the argument that is coming from the U.S. government and the European government is offensive. They speak about these corrupt African governments like they were not part of the corruption of those governments. They speak about the Latin American military and corrupt militants and they imposed them, they invaded us, they trained them, they promoted them and at the end they say they are not giving us any possibility of democracy because of those governments and our history is that any time we attempt to remove those governments we're invaded by the U.S.
We are persecuted, we are exiled, so therefore if you create them, then don' t accuse me and accuse our people that they do not have the right to demand something because they have corrupt government that you created. They created the Salinas in Mexico, they created Somoza in Nicaragua, they created all, Duvalier in Haiti , Mobutu in Africa. We know they created them. So at end of it, it's that either they respond to our demands or else this conference is not about equality and justice. Thank You