- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

DURBAN, South Africa — The U.N. racism conference opens today, with continued acrimony over Israel and its relations with the Palestinians hovering over the proceedings.
Even before the government delegations showed up, Palestinian and other Arab groups mixed it up with their Israeli counterparts at the two-day event staged for nongovernmental organizations.
A coalition of Jewish groups had called a news conference to say they had been harassed and discriminated against during meetings by nongovernmental organizations leading up to the racism conference here.
But before the groups could complete their presentation, Arab activists began shouting, singing and pushing in front of the speakers, prompting organizers to cut short the news conference.
"This is typical of how we have been treated during this conference," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
A clearly frustrated U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson sought peace yesterday.
"I am aware there have been personalized, unpleasant exchanges directed at Jewish groups," she told reporters in Durban. "And I want to say, this is a conference about victims."
As the curtain rises on the World Conference Against Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances, the setting is less one of conciliation and harmony than it is a picture of bitter discord.
Little in the draft program of action or conference declaration has been decided on, with delegates bogged down on issues as large as how to confront the historic slave trade, and as small as matters of punctuation.
The Israelis object to anything but "Holocaust" in the singular, with a capital H, and referring only to Adolf Hitler's slaughter. And indigenous peoples are demanding that they always be referred to in the plural, to emphasize their uniqueness.
After some opening remarks and a formal luncheon today, two working groups will meet behind closed doors to slog through texts one paragraph at a time.
The United States on Wednesday announced it will participate in the conference, after threatening for months to boycott it over anti-Israel language.
The delegation will be led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Southwick. The news was a relief to foreign delegates and U.N. officials, who didn't relish a third racism conference in 21 years boycotted by the United States. If Mrs. Robinson was disappointed that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell did not accept her personal invitation to attend, she didn't show it.
"I am aware that the United States has indicated it is sending a midlevel delegation," Mrs. Robinson said. "Michael Southwick is a skilled negotiator leading a team of experts."
Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley joined Mr. Powell yesterday in boycotting the U.N. conference because it was too anti-Israel. Like the United States, Canada will send a delegation headed by a midlevel diplomat.
The conference documents run to more than 100 pages, an unwieldy wish list that diplomats say will have to be whittled down in small meetings before they can be adopted. Participating delegates have agreed to accept only a handful of paragraphs in these documents, meaning they are heading for late nights of negotiating.
Scores of issues have gone almost unnoticed amidst the furor over anti-Israel language and attempts to address the aftermath of slavery.
Neither the declaration, nor the program of action — a kind of blueprint for nations to follow to reduce racism — is legally binding.
The draft program of action, in particular, is hung like a Christmas tree with social and cultural baubles that don't appear to have anything to do with racism or xenophobia.
There are clauses to improve health services for women and the disenfranchised, increased investment for marginalized business owners, improved access to drinking water, and increased vaccinations for children.
Several of the paragraphs in the draft program of action — most of which have not been OK'd by member states — seem to infringe on freedom of speech and expression.
In an effort to curb hate speech, particularly on the Internet, the program of action proposes the criminalization of "racist messages." Internet hate sites are to be shut down, and Web sites with links to them reprimanded.
Several press-freedom groups and the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have complained to Mrs. Robinson about the possible infringement on free speech.
Education comes under scrutiny as well. Catholic schools, Jewish yeshivas and Islamic madrassas could come under fire, with "an appeal to all states to fight against any form of separate schooling based on national or ethnic origin, color, descent or religion."
The program of action condemns biases by law-enforcement officials, and urges states to "eliminate the phenomenon known as racial profiling." It also calls for something like hate-crimes legislation, in which a killing could be judged more harshly if it was committed for racist reasons.


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