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Lessons from the World Conference Against Racism: South Africa as a Case Study

Oregon Law Review, Vol. 81, No. 3, 739-770, Fall 2002

Florida International University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-18

32 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2009 Last revised: 12 Dec 2014

Peggy Maisel

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: October 23, 2009


It is difficult to get people to remember, let alone focus on the accomplishments and ongoing challenges that emerged during the United Nations sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (the WCAR) held just over a year ago in Durban, South Africa. The reason is simple: that conference ended on September 8, 2001, and what we remember about that period is now permanently obscured by what happened just three short days later. But the events of September 11 make it more imperative than ever that we address the evils of racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia. It is important that we remember what the Durban Conference achieved and, more importantly, continue our work to reach the vision for the world announced there. This Article seeks to help refocus attention on that important need.

A full review of what the Durban Conference did and did not achieve is beyond the scope of this Article. Indeed, only the passage of time will reveal that answer. Instead, this Article will focus on the current struggle of the host country, South Africa, to overcome its notorious past as a means of assessing what is involved in the present day struggle to eliminate the scourge of racism and poverty. South Africa seems to especially appropriate as the subject of such a case study because of that country's history and the fact that the government led by the African National Congress (ANC) was born with the express purpose of ending the years of racial hatred and discrimination that were central to the prior regime. Further, during its eight years of existence, the current government has consistently struggled to create a truly democratic society. Therefore, looking at events in South Africa should teach us about the obstacles that must be overcome to reach that goal even where there is a strong will to do so.

Before assessing South Africa's efforts to create the type of society envisioned in the Durban Declaration, Part I describes what happened prior to and during the WCAR that led to the adoption of that declaration. This review is helpful because, among other things, it reveals both the areas of agreement and division between nations regarding responsibility for remedying the past effects of racism, slavery, and colonialism. That knowledge, in turn, allows for a more accurate assessment of both the ability of South Africa to effect change as well as the international support South Africa can expect from other countries. To further prepare for an assessment of how well South Africa is meeting its obligations under the Durban Declaration, Part II describes the current situation in the country and how its history of colonialism and apartheid has brought it to this point. Part III then contains an analysis of the effects of the new South African government to eradicate the racial disparities that are the legacy of the past. As recognized in its new constitution, those efforts are assessed in relation to the achievement of both social justice – i.e., the elimination of prejudice and discrimination – and also economic justice – i.e., the reduction of poverty and depravation. Finally, as the delegates to the WCAR recognized, the achievement of economic justice in this globalized world is dependent on the support of the wealthier Western and developed nations. Thus, Part IV concludes the analysis by considering how South Africa's efforts have been aided or hampered by those countries. In the end, it is hoped that this Article will provide some insight into what must be done to create the type of world so elegantly and passionately described in the Durban Declaration.

Keywords: World Conference Against Racism, Radical Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, WCAR, Durban Declaration, United Nations, South Africa, prejudice, apartheid, racial disparities, constitution, poverty, economic justice

Suggested Citation

Maisel, Peggy, Lessons from the World Conference Against Racism: South Africa as a Case Study (October 23, 2009). Oregon Law Review, Vol. 81, No. 3, 739-770, Fall 2002; Florida International University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-18. Available at SSRN:

Peggy Maisel (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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