Mobilising an Australian anti-racism advocacy coalition: The Australian NGO Working Group for the UN World Conference against racism

Ladan Rahmani, University of Sydney

Background: UN World Conference Against Racism

The third United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), held in Durban, South Africa between 31 August to 8 September 2001, provided an opportune impetus to action for the global anti-racism movement. As High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson stated in one of her speeches leading up to the conference:

If the World Conference is to make a difference, it must not only raise awareness about the scourge of racism, but it must lead to positive actions at the national, regional and international levels that can bring relief to those who bear the brunt of racism and racial discrimination.

For Australia, the conference heralded a new development in the anti-racism efforts that was primarily manifested in the strong collaboration organised in the form of the Australian NGO Working Group for the World Conference Against Racism (NGO WG).

International preparations for the conference began immediately after the close of the 56th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 2000. The First Preparatory Committee of WCAR outlined the logistical and preliminary work for the conference. Two inter-sessional meetings of the Preparatory Committee as well as two further Preparatory Committee meetings were held at the UN headquarters in Geneva in 2001. These meetings focussed on the drafting and negotiation of the conference Declaration and Programme of Action. In addition, four Regional Meetings and five regional Expert Seminars preceded the international Preparatory Committee meetings.

For Australia, the conference heralded a new development in anti-racism efforts.

Vociferous criticisms have been levelled against aspects of the WCAR. Some have described the conference as organised hypocrisy, irrelevant, a waste of time, a talking shop, and a forum for the naïve and idealistic. A New York Times opinion piece titled ‘Doomed to Irrelevance’ (September 6, 2001) outlines these kind of sentiments in some detail. Criticisms of this kind disparage any claim that positive outcomes have resulted from the conference. The Australian NGO Working Group shows clearly that the WCAR has been far more important than many popular critiques would have us believe. For Australia, the WCAR marked a turning point in the collaboration of organised anti-racism efforts.

Australian Anti-Racism Advocacy Coalition: Processes and Strategies

The NGO WG’s primary form of communication and interaction was through a list server. A steady flow of reports, communication, and strategy formulation took place through the means of e-mail communication. An Australian-wide membership of individuals and organisations involved in the NGO WG started work in early 2001 to form a strong advocacy coalition. In addition to electronic communication, tele-meeting conference calls were organised regularly to further enhance the level of consultation.

Meetings with Government authorities formalised the Working Group’s requests. Requests included a call for increased conference funding commensurate with other UN World Conferences such as the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, that non-government organisations constitute a proportion of the Government delegation, that the Government provide financial assistance to the UN Voluntary Fund, and that the Government provide assistance to NGOs based in the Pacific Islands to enable them to participate in the WCAR.

In addition, the consultations enabled the NGO WG to raise important issues in their discussions with Government officials, including:

  • Racism affecting indigenous peoples
  • Racism affecting refugees and asylum seekers
  • Racism affecting disabled people
  • Racism in some Australian legislation particularly affecting indigenous people, migrants and asylum seekers
  • Racism affecting women

Although there was no funding allocated for NGOs, the WG used innovative strategies, deploying the resources within their means to support the WCAR. The NGO WG’s efforts in raising awareness about the WCAR within the Australian community resulted in the production by a committee of the WG of the Australian Community Kit on Racism. Strategies such the ‘Durban on Your Doorstep’ campaign further promoted the WCAR process within the Australian community and encouraged local anti-racism action. The NGO WG also made the Parliamentary Code of Race Ethics an area of advocacy. The Code was developed in 1996 and had gained 122 signatures by Members and Senators. There were 102 Members of Parliament who had not signed the Code and the NGO WG sought to gain the endorsement of these remaining Members. The WG has received six further signatures to date and plans to continue its work on this following the 2001 Federal Election.

Ongoing Work of the Anti-Racism Advocacy Coalition

Critics mistakenly view the conference as an isolated event, not a process.

Global-local advocacy works internationally by influencing government positions and in international standard setting, and locally by holding governments accountable to promises agreed to at an international level. The WCAR Declaration and Programme of Action entails specific lines of action that states should take in formulating national action plans that can be precise and specific according to the particular circumstances of each state. The document calls for stronger anti-discrimination legislation, affirms the appeal for universal ratification of the International Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and implementation of its provisions, and stipulates many other specific actions that can be taken in combating racism. The task of NGOs may be to translate these broad commitments to realistic and concrete changes at the national level. Monitoring these commitments involves the ongoing work of the NGO WG. The ongoing formalised operation of a network of this kind can ensure systematic and sustained follow-up.

In the lead up to the WCAR, the NGO WG signalled that ongoing work post-WCAR would include the organisation of Youth Forums around the country, and activities that examine the intersection of gender and racial discrimination.

A Model for Other NGO Networks

The form of collaboration and networking created by the Australian NGO WG has distinctive features that could serve well in being replicated across other issue areas. Collaborative efforts have enhanced the effectiveness of presenting requests to Government. Open lines of communication and using different means of networking have generated a range of innovative strategies to influence actors in harnessing the potential of the WCAR.

UN conferences are at times referred to as talking shops that outline toothless documents with no ‘hard law’ status. Critics of the WCAR mistakenly view the conference as an isolated event rather than a process. These criticisms lack vision and are mired in the false assumption that international cooperation is undermined by the intractable constraints of the state system. They do not look beyond the current malaise inhibiting multilateral cooperation. They also do not take into account the mobilisation of a global anti-racism movement, which has been manifested in the collaboration of national, regional and international NGOs and their constituencies in the form of a transnational advocacy network. The Australian NGO WG that has formed a national advocacy coalition has worked steadily in contributing to awareness raising, motivating local action, and ensuring that the commitments that have been made are monitored.


Australian NGO Working Group, The Australian Community Action Kit on Racism (11 October 2001)

Australian NGO Working Group, The World Conference Against Racism (13 October 2001)

Australian NGO Working Group, Australian NGOs Promote Parliamentary Code of Race Ethics (15 October 2001)

Bob Herbert, ‘Doomed to Irrelevance’ New York Times 16 September 2001

ICARE Unedited WCAR Declaration and Programme of Action (22 October 2001)

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights World Conference Against Racism: Durban, South Africa (2001) (15 October 2001)

Ladan Rahmani worked at the two recent sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights as well as attending four out of five preparatory meetings leading up to the UN World Conference Against Racism. She is currently a Ph.D candidate in Government and International Relations at the School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney.