NEW YORK — The United Nations’ top human rights official said yesterday that an Arab resolution calling Zionism racist could derail the upcoming world conference on racism.
“If there is an attempt to revive a Zionism-as-racism [resolution], we will not have a successful conference,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson told reporters in Geneva.
The United States and Israel strongly protested the language of the resolution pushed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The Bush administration yesterday issued its strongest warning to date that the United States will not attend the Aug. 31-Sept. 7 conference in Durban, South Africa, if the anti-Zionism language is not removed from the draft agenda.
The United States also strongly objects to a second proposal calling for countries that prospered in the past from slavery to formally apologize and pay unspecified reparations. Britain is also reportedly considering downgrading its delegation to protest the drift of the agenda negotiations.
“The United States stands on the side of principle,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday.
“And the United States can stand on the side of making certain that a variety of Third World nations do not hijack a conference that should be aimed at combating racism, and under the guise of combating racism turn this into a conference that itself smacks of anti-Semitism,” Mr. Fleischer said.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman and other administration officials yesterday briefed about two dozen foreign diplomats on U.S. concerns for 45 minutes at a State Department meeting.
“We do want the conference to succeed,” a State Department official said on background after the meeting. “We support it, and we hope to be able to attend. That said, we have serious concerns.”
The official added that the United States was planning to send a “strong delegation” headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Lorne Craner to the conference-preparatory meetings, which begin in Geneva on Monday.
“Once that’s over, and we have had a chance to have conversations … we’ll look again at where we stand and be in a better position to determine the extent and level of our participation in Durban,” the official said.
Mrs. Robinson has been traveling the world to build support for the proposed World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. She met with Mr. Arafat on the sidelines of the Organization for African Unity summit in Lusaka, Zambia, two weeks ago.
She indicated that he was receptive to her message. “He wanted a successful outcome in Durban. I’m not going to put other words in his mouth. He was very positive, and I found it very encouraging.”
U.S. and Israeli officials have been campaigning to remove the language, which calls Zionism a form of apartheid and condemns the Jewish state as racist.
American and many European nations are also deeply concerned about African-sponsored draft language that describes the slave trade as a “crime against humanity” and asks for unspecified compensation to be paid by those who benefited from trafficking in human beings.
Western industrial nations, many of them with colonial histories, say the racism conference should address problems that exist today.
Arab nations, acting with the concurrence of Asian governments, drafted the anti-Zionist language at a February meeting in Tehran.
American diplomats characterize it as more insidious than the “Zionism-equals-racism” language that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975 and was not repealed until 1991.
“This would be a throwback to a position that was rejected 10 years ago by the international community if this conference takes this unwise step,” Mr. Fleischer said.
Diplomats from scores of countries will gather in Geneva on Monday for a final attempt to agree on a broad range of contested issues. They include slavery reparations, the caste system, treatment of indigenous peoples, asylum for refugees and limits on political parties and advertising that implicitly advocate one group over another.
Staff writer Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington.