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UN: Mideast Dispute Clouds Anti-Racism Conference

  • Robert McMahon

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will not attend a United Nations conference on racism later this week due to U.S. concerns about anti-Israeli language in conference documents. The announcement deals a blow to human rights activists hoping to have U.S. support for a conference program of action against discrimination. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports that the Mideast issue is one of several that threatens to block consensus at the conference.

United Nations, 28 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations conference on racism has suffered a major setback only a few days before it begins with the decision by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to stay away.

The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson -- who is secretary-general of the conference -- and civil society groups had said that Powell's participation was important. As the United States' first black secretary of state, Powell has already spoken out about his own experiences with racism, and he would have lent prestige to the eight-day conference, which begins on 31 August in the South African city of Durban.

But Powell's spokesman, Richard Boucher, said yesterday (27 August) that Powell cannot attend a conference that would single out Israel for criticism in its official language:

"The elements that most concerned us and bothered us at this point are the offensive language about Israel and the singling out of Israel in many of the conference documents. (We've) worked very hard to get rid of this. But we haven't, at this point, been able to do that."

Boucher told reporters that the U.S. government has not decided yet whether to send a lower-level delegation to the conference. News agency reports say the conference's draft materials still retain references that describe actions against Palestinians as racist. One paragraph under debate includes reference to "the Zionist movement which is based on racial superiority."

Robinson told reporters yesterday in Johannesburg that intensive discussions are continuing concerning the conference agenda. She said "flexibility is being shown" in drafting the language on issues related to the Middle East, as well as to slavery and colonialism.

But the Palestinian Authority representative to the United Nations, Nasser al-Kidwa, said on 24 August that Palestinian officials will press the conference to deal with what he called "racist practices of the occupying power."

"The message of Durban will be very clear: Racism and racial discrimination, xenophobia and all its forms are not acceptable, including those manifestations which are coming from Israel. Israel cannot be exempted from that. Period."

Gerald LeMelle will be one of the leaders of the conference delegation from non-governmental organization Amnesty International. He tells RFE/RL that it is unfortunate that Middle East politics could disrupt the agenda of a conference dedicated to solving a global problem.

He said racism is an issue that Israelis, Arabs, and other countries need to address collectively:

"The (purpose of the) conference should not be to attack any country. It should be to find solutions for all the countries to deal with a vexing problem."

LeMelle said the presence of a U.S. delegation is key to the success of the conference. As a country that has made some progress in overcoming racism, he says, the United States could offer valuable contributions to the debate and any program of action that may emerge from Durban:

"The United States does have a certain credibility to address many issues and to move them forward, and we ought to use that credibility. No one's waiting for the Chinese to do this. No one's waiting for the Russians to do it. No one's waiting for, actually, most of the European countries."

International action against racism can be traced back to the UN General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. The adoption of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1963 set up a formal method in which committees composed of UN member states regularly review the performance of signatories to the declaration.

Michael McClintock is deputy program director of New York-based Human Rights Watch. He tells RFE/RL that one purpose of the Durban conference should be to make governments more accountable in addressing racism. Governments can agree on the evils of racism, he says, but many lack the commitment to address past wrongs or take action to avoid their repeat.

"The sticking point is who's responsible and at what point are governments responsible. [For example,] one of the things people have to be reminded of is, in fact, the conference is about implementing rather good standards to which most governments of the world have already pledged to support."

McClintock says many of the human rights debacles of recent years -- from Bosnia to Rwanda to the growing problem of trafficking -- have their roots in racial discrimination.

Human Rights Watch, which will be among hundreds of NGOs at the conference, will encourage governments to set up a UN fund that could establish bodies like truth commissions to examine past racist practices, McClintock says. But he says his organization will also urge the development of school programs to educate young people on racism and promote affirmative action in hiring practices:

"We now have genocide in our own backyards. We have mass population movements fleeing racist practices. We need to wake up and take some action. And we need also to recognize that past abuse doesn't go away simply by legislation. And there's a need to make things right for victims of past abuse, which requires concerted action."

The conference's goal is to produce a declaration that calls attention to the damage caused by past expressions of racism and also to agree on a program of action to carry on the fight against discrimination. The conference will deal with traditional forms of racism, as well as consider victims who have not received much attention at previous international events -- such as refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, Roma, and trafficked persons.

But in addition to the intrusion of Middle East politics, the conference has already generated controversy over the issue of slavery and reparations. The United States and some European states -- former colonial powers and slave-trading nations -- are concerned about calls for an apology for slavery.

Currently under dispute is language in the draft declaration calling for an apology as a first step toward reparations, compensation for victims, and payments to a development fund from states and other entities that "benefited materially" from slavery and colonialism.

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