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U.N. Conference Against Racism

August 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: We get four perspectives on the Powell decision. Harold Koh served as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Clinton administration. He’s now a professor of international law at Yale University. Fareed Zakaria is editor of “Newsweek International.” Hugh Price is president of the National Urban League, and Abraham Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Harold Koh, let’s start with you. What do you think of the administration’s strategy in not sending Colin Powell to Durban?

HAROLD KOH: Well, I think it’s a missed opportunity both for the United States to help shape the emerging global agenda on race discrimination, and also I think it’s a missed opportunity for Colin Powell to be an articulate spokesman on this issue for our country. His own autobiography is called “My American Journey,” and it’s a story about how one individual suffered discrimination and was able nevertheless to become our Secretary of State.

And I think he could come and help to reshape the agenda of the meeting, tell America’s story for America, and push the conference toward a more productive end. I think it’s not going to happen, and I think that’s too bad.

RAY SUAREZ: Fareed Zakaria, a missed opportunity?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I think it is a missed opportunity, but mostly missed by those other nations. I think this is the kind of conference that gives the UN a bad name. They have indeed singled out Israel for condemnation. The issue is of course is not that it will be illegitimate to criticize Israel for any kind of practices it engages in, but by equating Zionism with racism, it is in effect trying to delegitimize the very existence of Israel, saying the founding basis of Israel is, in fact, racist and inadmissible.

Now, first of all, I think that it is unfair to pick on one nation, as the president said. But secondly, the conference has to decide, does it want to chart a set of practical solutions to problems that we will encounter now and in the future, or does it want to spend its time in grand historical and ideological battles which are utterly counterproductive, deeply polarizing, and for the most part, a mask to hide a certain kind of latent anti-Americanism that is bubbling over in some parts of the third world?

RAY SUAREZ: What about Harold Koh’s point that having the highest-ever black office holder in American history go into the midst of this conference and give a different view of these very topics would be an important thing?

FAREED ZAKARIA: It’s an interesting dilemma, Ray, because you’re right: On the one hand, there’s a virtue to making your point even in a hostile audience. On the other hand, you don’t want to be in a situation where you are placed in a forum in which everybody else… which is a setup, where everyone else is ganging up against you; where resolution after resolution will be passed over your objections.

And part of the purpose of having this forum, then, is to have you stand there, as if in the dark, and have people denounce you. Why give them the pleasure of being able to have Colin Powell– the conference will gain immeasurably in a kind of media status and star power for having Colin Powell there– just so that they can then read him the riot act? I don’t see why we should… why we should elevate the conference to that level.

HAROLD KOH: If I could respond?

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly.

HAROLD KOH: Colin Powell has a golden opportunity to address these issues, to say… Put it in his own words. “I am living proof that America has struggled with the issue of racism. Our two highest foreign policy officials are African Americans. Which of you other countries can say that?” And in private meetings, he can be quite direct and blunt. He’s not a potted plant. This is a moment for engaged diplomacy, and the reason that he’s Secretary of State is so that he can engage in it, and this is potentially a defining moment for him.

RAY SUAREZ: Hugh Price, let’s talk a little bit about the fact that this plays very differently in domestic terms from the international terms that our two previous speakers have been looking at this. Let’s look at the United States and what this says to people here about America’s willingness to engage.

HUGH PRICE: Well, these are obviously enormously important issues with a lot of historical baggage. But we also have to look ahead, and I think that the United States has more to teach the rest of the world on how to manage diversity and create opportunity than any other society on earth. And we could use our presence there to try to do that, and I think that the presence of Secretary General Colin Powell would have accomplished that. So we’re deeply disappointed that he’s not going.

We certainly think that the U.S. must be there, and there are ways, certainly in settings like this, of absenting yourself if there’s something very uncomfortable that crops up. There are ways of dissenting. But not to be there I think sends a terrible domestic signal to this country that we don’t take these issues seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: Abraham Foxman?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: We applaud President Bush and the Secretary’s decision not to go. This didn’t begin on Friday. The United States tried time and time again to set a certain standard, a standard to deal with racism, with racial discrimination, with xenophobia. And from Teheran, which was the first signal that we got that others are looking to hijack this conference of racism to promote their political, specific aims of de-legitimizing Israel, de-legitimizing the Jewish people, bashing Israel… This was a debate that was held in the UN; it’s ancient history.

The UN ruled… voted that Israel was racist, and then the general assembly overruled it. There’s a need to discuss racism, but not in a conference which already has already been hijacked. And I believe that Colin Powell, the secretary of state of the United States, can get his message across from Washington. Going there, he would legitimize; he would give it a certain status and a prestige, which this conference unfortunately doesn’t deserve.

RAY SUAREZ: Hugh Price, you heard that explanation for why this could be a public relations debacle for the United States. How do you respond to that?

HUGH PRICE: I don’t think it would be a public relations debacle. And I certainly agree that the issue of – you know — racism and Zionism does not belong at this conference. It destabilizes and distracts, and it is just…it’s all wrong for this agenda. I think that statement could be made very powerfully not only from here, but also from Durban. And that also leaves, un-addressed with an American presence, all the other issues that do belong on the agenda.

I would prefer that we be there and that we use that venue to make many of the points that Abe has just made. And I certainly agree with the fundamental points that he made about the fact that that issue does not belong in this conference.

RAY SUAREZ: Fareed Zakaria, go ahead…

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: You have to remember that in the last several months, many countries who saw this as a good thing… It is an important thing. We just turned the corner on a millennium which, and a century in which, racism almost destroyed our civilization.

So it is a wonderful thing, to begin this millennium with addressing the present and the future of racism. And a lot of good people, a lot of countries tried to convince those who were determined to hijack it, tried to convince them that there is a greater good for a civil society to deal with issues of racism for the present and the future, and not to rehearse politicized issues of international political conflict, which need to be resolved in another forum.

RAY SUAREZ: But Abraham Foxman, there will be many other countries presumably looking at the roster, the agenda for Durban, that are also in for some uncomfortable moments — colonial powers from the last century and earlier centuries; China, with its rule over Tibet. Should everyone who is facing uncomfortable moments think twice about whether or not to go to this thing?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: No, but again, if you look at the draft document, again it specifically exaggerates the attacks planned and the criticism directed against the Jewish people, against Zionism, and the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. It is totally disproportionate to a conversation and a discussion. If you want to discuss whether a religious state is, per se, racist, let’s put on the agenda Iran; let’s put on the agenda Afghanistan; let’s put on the agenda countries who claim and are religious.

None of those things are on the agenda. Israel is there because it is a Jewish state, it is per se being described as a racist state, as an apartheid state. There is again a hijacking on this issue. While other issues will surface, the program and the platform disproportionately bashes Israel.

RAY SUAREZ: Fareed Zakaria, in the run-up to Durban, there have been efforts to moderate the tone of the draft document that will open the conference. The United States managed to use pre-conference diplomacy to moderate some language on slavery and reparations. It’s made the same effort with the anti-Israel language, but hasn’t been successful. Why do you think that is?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Because there are a group of very determined opponents, mostly Arab nations, that are opposed to it. It’s important to point out, Ray, it’s not just the United States that wants this language out. Kofi Annan has asked for this language to be out, the Secretary-General of the UN; Mary Robinson, the Human Rights Commissioner, has asked that this language be taken out.

What is happening here is actually worth thinking about for a moment because it has something to do with the way in which the United States is going to have to deal with these international organizations. A number of countries, in this case mainly Arab states, use their numerical superiority, the fact that there are 25 or 40 or 60 of them, and there’s just one of us, usually with a few allies, to try to railroad the agenda, the declarations, the drafts of these kinds of conferences.

And I think we have to come to some kind of agreement that if countries are going to keep doing that, the United States is simply not going to show up at these meetings to be outvoted, to be humiliated, to be, as I said, placed in the dark. At the same time, I do believe we should try to go to as many of these kinds of meetings as we can, to demonstrate our interest in a constructive dialogue. But there has to be responsibility on both sides, I think.

HUGH PRICE: Let me just say that I think that the way a number of the African nations were framing a response to colonialism, as I understand it, was rather constructive, where they said, “Let’s look at the question of debt relief, of investments in education, in health care.” That’s a constructive, proactive way of looking at a response to a horrific history. And I think that if other issues can be addressed in that way, then a gathering such as this is constructive.

The other point, which is critically important, is it takes two to tango. To have a dialogue, you’ve got to have parties willing to be part of that dialogue, and certainly structuring an agenda that makes it extraordinarily uncomfortable for those who have to be at the table to be there is an exercise in futility. And that’s where I think Secretary-General Kofi Annan was right on point when he said, “Let us be careful not wallow so much in the past that we lose sight of how to move forward.”

RAY SUAREZ: Harold Koh.

HAROLD KOH: Yeah, I think all the previous speakers have just identified a set of ways in which Colin Powell could use this opportunity. The fact of the matter is we boycotted the last two conferences, and what that did was to make sure that the Zionism-as-racism issue arose again. I think Abe Foxman is right on the money on substance, and I think that what Colin Powell could have said is…Martin Luther King put it the best when he said, “I know racism, and I know that Zionism is not racism.” He could have spoken from his own experience.

The fact of the matter is that the reason that the U.S. was able to water down the language at this point leading up to the conference is because we participated and fought it out in a diplomatic forum, and used that pulpit. And I think that’s what Colin Powell could do. He could go to the conference, speak the same message as Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, and say, “let’s talk about the real agenda for the world conference against racism, and not focus on scapegoating one country.”

The fact of the matter is the U.S. goes to conferences every week, every month. I attended many myself in which the issue of Zionism as racism came up. And our job is to go and tell the truth about the American experience and about the international experience, and it’s not… Our voice will be heard.

RAY SUAREZ: Abraham Foxman — a brief final remark.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Harold, I think there’s one problem here, which is having made such a strenuous request that the conference alter the draft declaration, and Powell having said, “Look, it will be very difficult for me to come if you don’t change this,” the fact that there was no attempt really made to accommodate him, it’s very difficult for him in those circumstances to say, “Okay, I was just kidding; I’ll go after all.”

HAROLD KOH: Well, I don’t agree with those tactics. I think that we should have said we will go and speak the truth. And it’s like Madeleine Albright going to the World Conference on Women, and for Warren Christopher to go to the Vienna Conference. The American Secretary of State shows up and speaks for American values. That should have been our going-in position, not stating some conditions that we didn’t think would be met before the conference came to life.

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: I firmly believe, though, that the fact that the United States did not attend the first and second conference on racism is what brought the United Nations around when the general assembly came around to say Zionism is not racism. It wasn’t the dialogue, it was that the United States stood on its principles, stood by its ally, said, “This is not acceptable.”

And I hope that we will find another venue, because the issue of racism deserves serious, serious discussion. Our future generations deserve that we set standards of behavior to deal with this disease of racism. But maybe the only way to get there is to make it very clear that countries who care sincerely about it will not be hijacked into an agenda, which doesn’t serve the purpose of bringing a civil society closer.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, we’re going to have to end it there. Thank you all for joining us.