The United Nations is preparing for a first-of-its-kind World Conference Against Racism next month in Durban, South Africa. But putting together the agenda is proving as diplomatically explosive as the topic.
Last week, the United States drew a line in the sand, threatening to withdraw from the conference if reparations for slavery or Zionism as racism were discussed. "For this conference to be successful, it's important that they focus on the current problems of racism," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.
No one disputes the importance of a conference against racism. But with an agenda so broad, and a topic so sensitive, many member states are heading for Durban with at least one example of racism in their own back yard. "It will require good will and compromise on all sides," says Mary Robinson, commissioner of human rights and organizer of the conference. "No country or group will walk away completely satisfied."
After a meeting in Geneva yesterday, UN conference planners agreed to remove the topic of Zionism as racism from the agenda, much to the chagrin of the Arab nations that requested it in the first place. A 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism was repealed 10 years ago, but several member states urged the conference to end the "foreign occupation of Jerusalem."
Negotiations over the agenda are ongoing, and Ms. Robinson is trying to keep attention focused on the purpose of the conference. "Whilst individual societies have embarked on processes of reflection and reconciliation [about racism], we as a global community have never attempted it before," she says. "The time for staking out positions and laying down markers has passed - we are now at the stage where we need to begin reaching agreements."
The US is certainly not the sole objector. Beijing opposes putting treatment of Tibetans on the program, and the Indian government is balking at any examination of its caste system as a form of racism.
The United Nations has held several conferences pertaining to racism in the past - from a 1948 convention on genocide to a 1973 convention on apartheid - but never has one conference attempted to discuss an issue as broad as racism, intolerance, and resulting inequities.
The conference dispute comes as the US has withdrawn from a germ warfare treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, and on the heels of being voted off the UN Human Rights Commission. To critics, such moves underscore a growing unilateralism by the US on a range of issues. To supporters, it shows the US is unwilling to go along with the global consensus if it believes the prevailing view is wrong.
The conference, formally titled the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, breaks the agenda into five general themes. But a key sticking point for the US and other nations is the core objective - a declaration that "solemnly acknowledges the wrongs of the past, notes the current manifestations ... and commits States and peoples to moving forward together in the fight against racism."
The United States is joined by some European countries in opposing any discussion of the African demand that countries that prospered from slavery and colonization should apologize - and pay compensation for their actions.
Others in the US insist that American participation in the conference is imperative, even if there is disagreement about language. "By attending the conference, the president could really go a long way into healing racial problems in America," says the Rev. Theodore Williams at the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (NAACP). "If President Bush is willing to discuss reparations for slavery, then he's in essence admitting that slavery is wrong, and to some degree legitimizing monetary compensation. Maybe he's not prepared to do that."
Yet it should be expected that countries across the globe will find fault with at least one issue the conference intends to raise, says Terri Johnson, head of the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago.
"There's always this notion that the United States is doing better than everybody else. Should this conversation be one of degrees? Is that appropriate? How do you say 'we're not coming because we don't like what's on the agenda?' Nobody should like what's on the agenda. Comfort shouldn't be on the table."
The Bush administration says it has every intention of participating - provided certain changes be made.
"The only thing stopping [US delegates] from going will be if the conferees divert the conference from its important mission of fighting racism," says Mr. Fleischer. Such diversions "serve to divide nations as opposed to bring people together," he says, adding that the conference should focus on current problems, and "not get lost in the tangle that is presented by trying to address long-ago inequity."
But such inequity, Williams warns, is not so far removed from America today. "We're talking about people working for hundreds of years without any compensations," Williams says. "Subsequent generations started with nothing, and we're still trying to build an economic base. We use reparations to repair the lives of Jewish people and Native Americans. We've compensated Japanese Americans. It's an old topic, and it has precedent."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor