- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

NEW YORK — A high-profile U.N. summit on racism and xenophobia will convene Friday in Durban, South Africa, amid a tangle of criticism and disagreement among participants over the conference's official language and goals.
The Bush administration, sometimes accused of going it alone in foreign affairs, this week is part of a swelling chorus of skeptics who say the gathering is intent on supplying a soapbox to condemn everything from Zionism and anti-Islamism to genocide in Rwanda and the caste system in South Asia.
Other conference activists call for reparations by Western powers for slavery and colonialism.
Such issues are so emotional that five days before the opening of the "World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance," the Bush administration had not decided whether to send a delegation to South Africa or boycott the proceedings entirely.
"The question at the end of the day is what kind of language we'll see on these issues," said a State Department official who would speak only on background — a reflection of how touchy the subject is in Washington. "There are still discussions in capitals, but we haven't seen it yet."
On Friday, Mr. Bush gave the clearest statement yet that the United States will boycott the proceedings if the conference is used to attack Israel through proposals reviving old charges that Zionism is a form of racism.
"We will not have a representative there so long as they pick on Israel," Mr. Bush said at a news conference in Texas. "We will not participate in a conference that tries to isolate Israel and denigrates Israel."
Mr. Bush said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was attempting to resolve the issue pending a final decision on U.S. participation. But just a day before the president's remarks, Arab League foreign ministers said they still would push for a resolution condemning Zionism.
Few nations have proven eager to see their internal problems aired on the international stage.
The Indian government is so dismayed that the document condemns its caste system and bonded labor that it also is considering staying home.
Nations of Northern and Western Europe are concerned over language calling for easier entry for asylum seekers and refugees.
Many Asian, Arabic and North American nations are resistant to proposed protections for migrant and guest workers who often toil in substandard conditions for paltry wages.
The final draft of the conference's conclusions urges stronger protections and explicit opportunities for all indigenous populations, language that appears to be aimed directly at the Australians, Americans and Canadians.
Europe's gypsies, known collectively as the Roma, were named explicitly in earlier versions as deserving stronger protection from discrimination, but the stateless Kurds — with roughly three times their numbers — were not.
There is something in the draft Durban documents to offend or alarm nearly every government on the planet, acknowledges Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who says that is exactly why such a conference is needed.
"It's an intensely political conference, about very important issues that are dark corners in every country," Mrs. Robinson said. "At the beginning of the 21st century, we are seeing manifestations of modern racism in all the countries of the world in different ways."
Mrs. Robinson urged governments to commit themselves to going beyond platitudes, to address the specifics of hate and intolerance.

Divisive questions
But few of the more than 120 governments and thousands of advocacy groups attending the conference can agree on what specifics need to be addressed, and how. Among the divisive questions:
Is Israel, by virtue of its very existence, a racist state?
Who is responsible for centuries of slavery and what kind of atonement should there be?
What role does religion play in promoting intolerance and hatred?
And, perhaps most importantly, are world leaders ready to grapple with such issues so soon after the close of the bloodiest century in recent history?
Thousands of human rights experts, advocacy groups and governments have met regularly for more than a year to try to answer these questions, or at least put them in a functional framework. But with less than a week to go before the conference opens, it doesn't look like they've gotten very far on the thorniest issues.
On the question of Israel, for example, Western governments have tried to prevent Islamic and Arab nations from reviving the 1975 "Zionism-equals-racism" resolution that was rescinded by the U.N. General Assembly in 1991.
But the diplomatic meltdown and renewed bloodshed in the Middle East have revived frustration in Arab capitals, and Durban looms as a tempting forum for their anger.
"Anything that smacks of 'Zionism-equals-racism' has to come out," a weary State Department official said.
The Americans, Israelis and their allies in Eastern and Western Europe also are concerned about references to a "holocaust" of Palestinians and attempts to equate Zionism with apartheid. They point out that the drafting conference on the topic took place in Tehran; Israeli diplomats were not allowed to attend.
The conference documents are not legally binding, but instead express political aspirations.
U.S. officials and lawmakers complain that neither the top leaders at the United Nations nor those of non-Western countries are willing to take on the most influential Arab states directly.
"There is a collective unwillingness to alienate publicly many governments," said Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, a participant in preparatory meetings who is heading to Durban with or without the official U.S. delegation. "We are dealing with a group of countries which so far have shown no flexibility and no willingness to compromise."
A half-dozen U.S. lawmakers, mostly Democrats, are expected to go. Most have been drawn by the attacks on Israel or by the opportunity to examine the impact of the slave trade.

Reparations roadblock
Slavery — as a historical fact that continues to color the future — is another roadblock in the quest for consensus.
African nations, early in the planning process, demanded their former European colonial masters apologize for the horrors of slavery and imperialism and sought compensation for lingering hardships.
But Western governments argued that although slavery was wrong, they cannot apologize for it or risk opening the way to lawsuits in national courts.
The Americans say they have broad Western support for language expressing "deep regret and profound remorse" for the slave trade, which the Africans apparently have agreed to accept.
The Europeans also have agreed not to increase official development assistance or consider direct payments tied to the slavery issue.
Demands for slavery reparations and apologies are "a ludicrous attempt to rewrite history," one U.S. diplomat said, acknowledging little consensus exists across the nation on exactly how to address its role. "The only evil party to all slavery was Western civilization? The Africans themselves took part, and the Arabs. Is this really the reason [Africa] is poor today? It is, at best, a stretch."
Even within Africa, the slavery issue is divisive. Nigeria and Libya most aggressively pursued the compensation theme, while Senegal and South Africa — themselves former slave traders — sought to dampen it.
The government of Sudan, which openly allows slave-taking in its two-decade war on Christians and Animists in the secessionist south, has maintained a low profile.
The question of compensation touched raw nerves in the United States, where many black groups increasingly demand recognition of their heritage and unspecified reparations — often educational — to help level the field.
The Congressional Black Caucus and National Urban League are among groups furious that Mr. Powell declined to attend the racism conference. Nearly 200 U.S.-based, nongovernmental organizations are registered for at least some of the gathering.

Image problems
U.N. officials have worked overtime to dispel the appearance of chaos and discord surrounding the conference, said to cost an unprecedented $11 million to organize. The Clinton administration pledged just under $250,000.
Mrs. Robinson, a former president of Ireland and outspoken advocate of women's rights, has buttonholed world leaders at international gatherings and twice met with Bush administration officials to urge participation in Durban.
South African Foreign Minister Knosazana Dlamini-Zuma has said his government will not tolerate violent demonstrations, but is not expecting the clashes that marred high-profile international summits in Seattle, Sweden and Italy.
Delegates from more than 160 nations took part in drafting the conference declaration and final program of action, but these documents — cobbled together in the arid language of international agreements — likely will mean little to Christians disenfranchised in Iran or China, or to black motorists pulled over on New Jersey's interstate.
"We said we wanted generic language, and we mean it," said the U.S. official of American demands to excise references to specific religions and countries.
"The language is not poetry. It is not uplifting or inspirational," said one Latin American delegate who has followed the conference from New York.
"No Martin Luther King, not even Kofi Annan."


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