No unity at racism conference

r The UN conference, which ends today, casts pall on prospects for future efforts.

There's been very little peace and love at this week's United Nations World Conference Against Racism. Instead of reconciling, longstanding enemies have stared each other down over ideological gaps that only seemed to deepen as the conference progressed.

Many participants say the conference - beset by dissent over the Middle East and debate about whether European nations owe Africans an apology - has failed to bring attention to the issues it was intended to address. And as hope dims for compromise over key issues blocking the conference's declaration and plan of action, some are beginning to wonder if the conference has done more harm than good.

"I think there is a venomous tone to the Durban Conference that is bad for the resolution of these issues, and terrible for the future of these conferences," says Ruth Wedgewood, a professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University in Washington and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The conference, which ends today, was supposed to launch an international fight against racism, much as the Beijing Conference in 1995 brought new attention to women's rights and the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 jumpstarted the environmental movement.

Two previous UN racism conferences, in 1978 and 1983, had been tainted by cold-war politicking and largely disappeared into the dustbin of history. But there was hope that this conference, without those tensions, might put racism in the international spotlight and produce a strong, unifying declaration against racial discrimination that would pressure governments to pay attention to intolerance within their borders.

Although the declarations are not legally binding, international law experts say they carry a powerful message. "You do worry about the rhetoric that comes out of these conferences," Ms. Wedgewood says. "These kinds of declarations, particularly in human rights, gradually can be taken as evidence of what countries think is legally obliging. If ... 150 countries say that land-mines are a crime against humanity, and then you have a court ruling, suddenly that becomes widely accepted as an international standard."

It didn't take long for those hopes to be extinguished, however. At a parallel conference of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), shouting erupted between Jewish and Arab groups. The dispute quickly came to dominate the offical UN conference, which began several days later, despite earlier UN promises that those issues would not be on the conference agenda.

Then, four days into the meeting, the US and Israel pulled out, saying the conference had been "hijacked" by special interests. European nations, who also opposed references in the draft documents equating Zionism with racism and demanding an apology and reparations for slavery, stuck around in hopes of brokering a compromise, while quietly indicating they would not accept a declaration with such text.

If some block of nations does not sign the declaration that is produced, Wedgewood says it will likely fade into obscurity like the declarations of the previous two racism conferences. By contrast, both the Rio and Beijing conferences produced substantive documents and action plans that have been used as measuring sticks for progress on women's issues and the environment, and were the foundation for follow-up conferences five years later.

The controversy at this conference could even undermine the success of future UN conferences by hardening the US stance against large thematic conferences and the UN in general.

Some analysts say that even if compromise is reached on the questions of slavery and Israel, damage to international relations has already been done. They say the events of the past days are evidence of a widening divide between nations in the North and South, a growing animosity toward the US, and a hardening of world opinion against Israel.

"Steering the politics of globalization is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the US in the years ahead," says P.J. Simmons, the head of a project on global institutions at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. "If it continues to exacerbate its reputation as not being cooperative, then it's not going to have the moral status to exercise that leadership."

For the hundreds of NGO representatives who jetted to Durban, the conference's biggest disappointment is that it failed to bring attention to a host of racism issues, from the plight of indigenous peoples to the continued ethnic tensions in the Balkans.

"We didn't have the slave trade [in Eastern Europe]. Nevertheless, the manifestations of aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, based in extreme intolerance to ethnic and religious minorities, have resulted in terrible violations of human rights and crimes against humanity," says Yuri Dzhibladze, the leader of a group of 77 NGOs that denounced the declaration for its harsh anti-Israel language. "Our big disappointment is that these and other issues of racism and xenophobia have been overshadowed and out of focus in this conference."

While few would call the conference a success, some still hope it will have the kind of positive aura created in Beijing and Rio. "In a formal sense, governments have failed to get their arms around many of the issues raised by this conference," says Michael Posner, executive director of the New-York based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "But I think there's no ignoring the fact that a range of issues relating to race and discrimination have been put on the table, and that there is a recognition by many human rights groups that their situations are similar. I still have hope that some sort of global movement will emerge from that."

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