Monday, April 14, 2008

NEW YORK — The U.N. 2001 anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, provoked a walkout by the United States and Israel, with both nations saying it had been overtaken by anti-Semitism and some in Congress claiming it had cemented the world body’s shame in the eyes of America.

The mandate for a Durban II conference early next year now worries organizers and diplomats at the United Nations, who fear the event will be a reprise.

Canada plans to boycott the event, and the United States and Israel have one foot out the door. Even the 27-nation European Union, which made it through the last conference, said it is worried.

“We did contemplate not participating,” said a French diplomat, whose country presides over the European Union the second half of this year.

“But we will go and fight for the agenda and the resolution that will be passed,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for attribution.

Concern stems not only from the 2001 event, which concluded days before the Sept. 11 attacks, but also because a Libyan diplomat now chairs the U.N. Human Rights Council, which will play a prominent role in the conference.

The White House said it will not participate in pre-conference planning and will leave it to the next administration to decide whether to attend.

Delegates from 20 countries will meet in Geneva later this month to establish the dates and location of the second World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Colloquially, the upcoming event is known as Durban II.

“We wish they wouldn’t call it that,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Geneva office that will not oversee the conference but will be affected by its reputation. “Durban — it has such a negative connotation.”

The follow-up conference also is likely to be held in Durban because South Africa is the only nation that has offered publicly to host it.

The first conference was designed to be inclusive, and nearly any group that could afford the airfare or find a sponsor was welcomed. Groups of demonstrators, some sporting manacles and fake whip-marks, demanded reparations for slavery.

The conference featured graphic exhibits showing wounds and humiliations suffered by indigenous tribes, and religious and ethnic minorities.

The most contentious deliberations by far were among the nongovernmental organizations (NGO), whose delegates met separately from diplomats to hammer out their own declarations.

The NGO document, which was never formally released by the United Nations, declared that Zionism equals racism and condemned Israel for committing a “holocaust” against its Palestinian neighbors.

The NGO declaration also singled out for criticism beneficiaries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while ignoring the trade in slaves from East Africa to the Arab world.

Israel overshadowed nearly every other issue, to the chagrin of groups that were unable to air their own grievances.

“The problem with Durban was because of the way things developed on the edge of the last [conference],” Mr. Colville said. “It’s taken on a life and a mythology of its own.”

He said the organizers of the next conference likely would limit NGO participation to groups recognized by the U.N. Economic and Social Council, or those explicitly endorsed by the 20 advisory nations. The advisory panel includes Iran, Pakistan, Libya and Cuba.

Prominent Jewish leaders have urged the Bush administration to withdraw funding and boycott the conference, while 27 Republican senators recently issued a letter condemning the 2001 event as “nothing more than platform for rogue nations to make anti-Semitic declarations … under the guise of ‘human rights.’ Durban II promises to be just as much of a sham as the first conference.”

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