- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

DURBAN, South Africa — The United States pulled out of the U.N. conference on racism last night, saying the failure of Arab and Islamic nations to compromise on anti-Israeli language had "hijacked" the international meeting.

"Today, I have instructed our representatives at the world conference to return home," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a statement, adding that talks with the delegation here had convinced him that a successful outcome was not possible.

The Israeli delegation also announced it would leave immediately, and the European Union nations called an emergency summit last night to decide whether to remain in Durban.

An EU spokesman said late last night that South African officials, in a last-ditch effort to save the conference, had invited a special group including EU members to work overnight to draft a completely new text on Middle East issues.

The United States, Israel and Canada had only reluctantly decided to attend the weeklong conference, and had downgraded their delegations in protest of a draft resolution that included more than two dozen paragraphs accusing Israel of "racist practices" against the Palestinians.

"This conference will stand self-condemned for yielding to extremists of the Arab and Islamic world," Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat and a member of the U.S. delegation, told reporters last night. "I am blaming them for hijacking this conference."

The Middle East conflict has overshadowed nearly every other aspect of the conference, drowning out the voices of the Indian untouchables, landless South Africans, women's advocates and reparations specialists. Israeli and Arab groups seemed to follow each other around, shouting and chanting until U.N. police were forced to separate them.

A bitterly contested declaration issued by nongovernmental organizations at a parallel gathering urged nations to isolate Israel as they had apartheid-era South Africa, and to establish a war-crimes tribunal for its actions in the Middle East. Anonymous anti-Semitic cartoons and literature carpeted the conference grounds.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters: "We regret very much the very bizarre show in Durban. An important convention that's supposed to defend human rights became a source of hatred."

Washington has long charged that the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances was, in fact, turning into a racist conference against Israel.

Following the U.S. withdrawal, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson urged other nations to stay the course. "I truly regret the decision of the United States to leave the conference," she said in a statement. "All of us must continue to play our part."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement saying, "I would have preferred that the U.S. were there to fight with others for the right solution, the right results and the right language. I regret their decision to withdraw."

The Norwegian government, intimately connected to the Middle East peace process since the 1993 Oslo accords, had tried to negotiate compromise language that would have alluded to Palestinian struggle without alienating Israel or its supporters.

The Norwegian draft also called for an immediate cessation of violence and terrorism and a swift return to the negotiating table. The United States on Sunday approved the language, but there was no movement from Arab and Islamic states, according to those involved in the negotiations.

Mr. Powell said in his statement, issued from Washington, that he was discouraged by the direction of the discourse.

"I know we do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations of hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of 'Zionism equals racism;' or supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world, Israel, for censure and abuse."

Arab states have said repeatedly that it would impossible to hold a world conference on racism and ignore the intensifying violence in the Middle East.

In Durban last night, news of the pullout elicited surprise and disappointment from international delegations.

South Africa accused Washington of trying to deflect attention from its own race problems.

"It will be unfortunate if a perception were to develop that the USA's withdrawal from the conference is merely a red herring demonstrating an unwillingness to confront the real issues posed by racism in the USA and globally," said Communication Minister Essop Pahad in a statement.

International human rights groups also lamented Washington's decision to withdraw.

"This is a bitter disappointment for the victims of racism around the world," said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "The United States has squandered an opportunity to stand against intolerance."

The news also infuriated the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a black activist, who strode into the media center in Durban last night to complain that Washington had again been derelict in its duty to confront its slave-using past and its debt to black Americans.

The U.S. government, joined by many European capitals, has also resisted proposed language in the conference documents that would apologize for the slave trade or open the door to compensation for its victims.

Although slavery has existed for centuries, and in many directions, the declaration specifies only atonement for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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