Since its creation, the United Nations has struggled to find measures to combat racial discrimination and ethnic violence. This commitment is reflected in the adoption of a number of resolutions, conventions and declarations, including:
1. Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide - 1948
2. Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
3. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination - 1963
4. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination - 1965
5. March 21 was designated International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination - 1966
6. International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid - 1973
7. First Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination1973-1982
8. First World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination Geneva, 1978
9. Second World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination Geneva, 1983
10. Second Decade for Action to Combat Racial Discrimination 1983-1992
11. Third Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination 1994-2003
In December 1997, the General Assembly called for a third world conference against racism. In 1999, the General Assembly's Third Committee decided that the conference should be preceded by regional meetings. Each regional conference was charged with drafting a declaration and a plan of action on racism that would ultimately be synthesized into a single set of documents to be ratified in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The regional meetings were in Strasbourg, France; Santiago, Chile; Dakar, Senegal; and Tehran, Iran. In addition, the committee also decided to have two preparatory inter-governmental meetings at the United Nations in Geneva.
Previously, the two other world conferences, held in 1978 and 1983, had almost exclusively focused on apartheid in South Africa. The proposed third world conference had no such limitations. Apartheid had ended in South Africa in 1994, and the General Assembly expanded the conference to include not only issues of racism and racial discrimination, but also xenophobia and related intolerance. Consequently, the groups and issues vying for attention included an extreme range of diversity: the Dalits, the Russian Panthers, the Romas, the Sikhs, the Palestinians, the Jews and migrants and migrant workers.
With the broad range of constituents struggling for attention, African and African descendants from Asia, Europe, North America, South America and the Caribbean attended the Vienna Conference because of a deep concern that the preparations for the third WCAR, had given little attention to issues of anti-black racism. For instance, at the November 2000 meeting of the European Preparatory Conference for European Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and state governments in Strasbourg, France, there was very little discussion of anti-black racism. The situation was complicated by the European Union's position (both governmental and non-governmental organizations) regarding the term race. Specifically, the European Union (EU) adopted the position that addressing the problems of different races was inappropriate because there was only one race - the human race. Thus, according to the EU, the notion of racism as a theory based on the so-called superiority of a race or ethnic group over another is no longer pronounced, [although] theories of supposedly insurmountable cultural differences between groups can be observed. The EU acknowledged the problems of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, but was reluctant to address the problems of African descendants. This reluctance did not extend to other groups. Consequently, the EU's Declaration and Program of Action mentions Romas, Jews, and Immigrants. Amazingly, the European Declaration and plan of action makes no specific mention of African and African descendants or of anti-black racism.
Concerned about this lack of focus, a strong statement was issued by people of African descent at the Americas Prepcon in Santiago, Chile in December, 2000. However, subsequent documents from other WCAR-related meetings, most notably the Inter-sessional meeting in Geneva in March 2000, continued to ignore issues related to Africans and African descendants, most specifically, anti-black racism.
This is not to say that there was a total absence of any discussion around any issue of concern to Africans and African descendants. Compensation (or reparations) owed to descendants of victims of the slave trade, slavery and colonialism was a central issue of contention at the first World Prepcon in Geneva in February, 2000. Governments from North America and Western Europe clashed with African states and NGOs over whether compensation should be included under the theme of effective remedies for victims of racism. There was also disagreement over declaring slavery and the slave trade crimes against humanity. Thus, controversy over compensation and over declaring slavery a crime against humanity, coupled with the absence of focus on anti-black racism, left many Africans and African descendants feeling as though issues of importance to them would not be fairly represented in the final document emerging from WCAR. The one exception to this lack of attention was the America's Declaration and Plan of Action which included a number of sections specifically on African descendants and the African Report which addressed the issues of Africans. These circumstances set the stage for the Vienna Meeting of Africans and African Descendants.