- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

DURBAN, South Africa — Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights who worked night and day for 18 months to bring the world to South Africa this week, came under harsh criticism from all sides yesterday for the debacle at the U.N. conference on racism.
Charges flew following Monday's walkout by the U.S. and Israeli delegations over language in a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism and accused it of racist policies.
Some said the United Nations — which created Israel in 1948 and also promised a Palestinian state — was by definition anti-Semitic; others said Mrs. Robinson and Secretary-General Kofi Annan had done too little to rein in the Arab and Islamic groups; still others said the conference was too ambitious and doomed to failure.
"She's tried to create equivalencies between victims, and that's just a distortion," said Dina Siegel Vann, who monitors U.N. activities for B'Nai B'rith. "She should have tried to keep the [Middle East language] off the agenda" when the Arab and Asian nations were first writing it up.
It was a bitter pill for the former Irish president and longtime human rights crusader, who had voiced soaring hopes in the days before the conference opened on Friday.
"We want the final document of the conference to be a sort of Magna Carta in the fight against racism," she said then. "I firmly believe Durban will be a historic breakthrough."
However, many in Israel and the Bush administration were unhappy with Mrs. Robinson long before the conference started, upset that she had supported the right of Palestinians to air their grievances in the racism conference's official documents.
At the close of the final pre-conference meeting — a session that produced little progress — Mrs. Robinson urged delegates to recognize "the accumulated sense of grievance and frustration because of prolonged military occupation, now in its fourth decade."
That kind of language angered not only the United States and Israel, but even some longtime professional comrades who usually sing her praises.
One senior Bush administration official, speaking on the condition he not be identified, said last month of the impasse over conference documents: "The small piece of good news is that Mary Robinson's career is finished — that's small progress."
The official said he was referring to any ambitions Mrs. Robinson might have to become U.N. secretary-general in the future.
In fact, Mrs. Robinson has said she will leave the United Nations when her mandate ends next September.
She was appointed to the post with a four-year term in June 1997 and earlier this year announced she would not seek a second term. But, asked by the U.N. leadership, she agreed to keep the job for another year.
The U.S. dissatisfaction extended also to Rep. Tom Lantos, a member of the U.S. delegation and a relentless human rights advocate who has known Mrs. Robinson for years.
"Mary Robinson has not been much help on this issue at all," said Mr. Lantos, California Democrat, who complained he could not understand why Israel was singled out in conference documents while abuses in Afghanistan, Sudan and Kashmir were overlooked.
"She is an intelligent and very fine woman, but I fear that her public and her private positions are at variance. She is anxious not to annoy any of the participating countries."
Other rights advocates suggested that her ambitions for the racism conference, the centerpiece of her five-year tenure as high commissioner, may have tied her tongue.
Mrs. Robinson has not often shied away from criticizing governments around the world. She has questioned Washington's anti-immigration patrols on the Mexican border and blasted the death penalty; criticized Beijing's treatment of prisoners and religious minorities; complained about the exclusion of asylum seekers and migrant workers from a "Fortress Europe"; dismayed Moscow by visiting Chechen rebels; and appealed to Tehran for a fair trial for a dozen Jews arrested as spies.
Mrs. Robinson's willingness to stand up to the richer nations has reinforced her stature and authority in the developing world. She has gathered respect from private-sector organizations, who credit her with jump-starting in 1997 a human rights bureau that did little more than publish press releases and wring its hands over atrocities around the world.


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