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Participation of American Psychologists in the 2009 Durban Review Conference

by Corann Okorodudu & Neil Altman, SPSSI UN/NGO Representatives

In December 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to convene a conference in 2009 to review progress on the Declaration and Programme of Action resulting from the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), held in Durban, South Africa. The Durban Review Conference will be held in Geneva from April 20 to 24, 2009, with the following theme: UNITED AGAINST RACISM – DIGNITY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.

Input to the Durban Review is being facilitated by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which sent questionnaires to Member States, intergovernmental bodies and UN agencies, and civil society and nongovernmental organizations. The success of the conference in calling for enhanced government commitment to combating and eliminating racism will depend on the level of participation of all sectors of the international community. The mobilization of civil society and nongovernmental organizations, like SPSSI and APA, is especially important. 

APA’s Representation at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR)

The American Psychological Association, having just gained status as an UN-accredited nongovernmental organization, sent a delegation to the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in August 2001. The APA Board of Directors approved a Resolution on Racism and Racial Discrimination: A Policy Statement in Support of the Goals of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which was supported by SPSSI and other APA divisions and groups of psychologists. The APA delegation’s interventions at the conference were guided by this resolution. Through their educational and advocacy activities, the delegation, in collaboration with a Health Caucus, succeeded in getting governments to include specific references to “mental health,” “mental health care,” “health,” and “health care” in several paragraphs of the WCAR Outcome Document. The United States and Israel walked out of that conference, alleging an anti-Semitic bias to the proceedings, although some claimed that the United States actually did not want to confront the issue of reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

When the APA delegation sought to present its final report on the conference to the APA Council of Representatives in 2004, there were objections from some members of council, based on their contention that the APA should have walked out along with the US delegation.  A heated controversy threatened to erupt as other council members felt that the Delegation was representing APA, a civil society organization, and that APA’s interest in bringing psychological knowledge about racism to the conference superseded the U.S. government’s reasons for walking out.

APA President Diane Halpern referred the matter to a task force, which in the end presented a report with recommendations that satisfied all parties and was accepted by the Council of Representatives in 2005.  The task force deliberations led to a report that built on the WCAR as follows: (1) After careful examination, the task force concluded that neither the Delegation’s Report nor the WCAR Outcome Document contained specific anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish content; (2) the Council received the Report of the APA Delegation and the WCAR Outcome Document, annotated to reflect contributions of the Delegation and to respond to concerns raised about two areas of the WCAR text; (3) the Council approved the recommendation to develop resolutions against anti-Semitism, religious discrimination, and all other forms of discrimination; and (4) the Council called upon all APA governance groups to take into consideration the Task Force Report and the APA Delegation’s Report in developing and implementing actions relevant to their work  to eliminate racism and other forms of intolerance. These documents are posted on the APA website (

SPSSI’s and APA’s Participation in the Durban Review Conference

Although the APA Committee on International Relations in Psychology has recommended to the board of directors that APA be represented at the 2009 Durban Review Conference, the decision for APA to send a delegation has not yet been made. However, both SPSSI and APA have prepared reports of their activities since 2001 toward implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. The SPSSI report identifies the following areas of its support for the WCAR goals: (1) Its leadership of activities of the NGO Sub-Committee for the Elimination of Racism, the NGO Committee on Mental Health Working Group on Refugees, and the NGO Campus Peace Projects; (2) its core functions consisting of publications and conferences; and (3) its Person-to-Person Delegation to South Africa in 2004. SPSSI’s report to the Durban Review Conference can be found on the SPSSI website:

Both the SPSSI Report, which has already been submitted to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the APA Report to the Durban Review Conference (to be submitted shortly) end with some lessons learned from psychological research about racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia and related intolerance, offered to be integrated into the Durban Review Conference Document.  However, these lessons will have very limited influence on the Durban Review Conference proceedings or the Outcome Document of the conference without the physical presence of psychologists at the pre-conference and conference proceedings. As is the case with all UN conferences, having an impact requires on-site collaboration with other NGOs in advocacy with governments to include psychological and mental health perspectives, which are urgently needed within the global UN framework of planning to address racism and related issues.

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