The absence of 14 of the world's leading democracies at the UN-sponsored Durban III anti-racism review conference insured that the ten-year commemoration in New York (September 22) was largely a non-event.

The US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Australia and Israel protested what they considered the conference’s tendency to single out Israel for criticism of its treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

In comments addressed to the conferees at the 66th UN General Assembly meeting, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the commitment to end all forms of discrimination, whether for race, religion or sexual orientation.

He noted that the Durban declaration of 2001 and its Program of Action against Racism acknowledged that no country could claim to be free of discrimination and intolerance. “Ten years later, that is still the case,” he said, citing examples of discrimination against Africans and people of African descent, Asians, indigenous people, the Roma and others.

Ban also said, “Let us stand firmly against anti-Semitism. We must oppose Islamaphobia and reject discrimination against the Christians.”  He also criticized discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.

It was a similar broadening of the definition of the word ‘racism’ that led to the spectacular walk-out by the US and Israeli delegations in 2001 at the first Durban anti-racism conference.  They objected to what they saw as the 'singling out of Israel' and equating Zionism with racism.

Some observers considered this politicizing of the Durban conferences as an attempt to take the focus off its original intent: the treatment of Native Americans, the transatlantic slave trade, the wars of colonial occupation - all seen as having been fuelled by racist ideologies that persist today. Europe and North America were thus called upon to apologize and pay reparations to the descendants of past victims, which they have objected to.

In response to claims for reparations in the Durban I preparatory documents, Western governments reacted by saying that present generations should not be expected to take responsibility for crimes committed in the past. While there may be some merit to this view, for the descendants of those who were wronged the need for restitution has become a major part of national political debates and international diplomacy.

The withdrawal of the USA and Israel in 2001 was magnified by the western press with headlines about the 'failure' of the entire Durban process.  Others consider it a success in that the conference document was the first acknowledgement that the slave trade and slavery constituted a crime against humanity and that there was a 'moral obligation' to pay financial compensation for wrongs committed.

This has inspired many actions since 2001. The Mau Mau families in Kenya have taken the British government to court for colonial crimes committed in the 1950s and 1960s. Black Americans are demanding apologies and reparations for slavery, a crime qualified in Durban as a crime against humanity. The government of Algeria has made it a condition for improved relationships with France that the French government recognizes crimes committed during the colonial period and apologizes for them.

In his recent address to the UN South African president Jacob Zuma, whose country hosted the 2001 conference, noted that “Just under a decade before that it would have been inconceivable that a gathering of that nature discussing racism would have taken place in South Africa,” he said.  At that time, apartheid was a very real and recent memory.