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Backlash: In a stunning move, U.N. delegations voted the U.S. off the Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board. (5/9/01)
Considering Reparations: Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) urges Congress to examine paying descendants of U.S. slaves money for their ancestors labor. (9/5/00)
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Despite weeks of bitter arguments, the United Nations conference on racism ended on an upbeat note. Diplomats in Durban, South Africa created a 27-page action plan to combat discrimination all over the world.
This conference grabbed media headlines with heated disagreements over Israel's treatment of Palestinians and a U.S. and European apology for slavery.
The U.S. and Israel representatives left South Africa early in the week, saying Arab states had hijacked the conference with a push to call Israel a racist state in the final declaration.
The European Union also threatened to leave, but stayed to work out a compromise that noted the "emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities." The document also expressed concern for the "plight of the Palestinians under foreign occupation."
The meeting eventually produced a plan that calls on governments to ensure that Gypsies get equal access to education, that minorities are guaranteed religious freedom, that people with AIDS have access to services and that police agencies do not engage in racial or ethnic profiling, among other things. The plan, adopted by 163 nations, is not legally binding.
The United Nations will appoint a panel of five experts to help countries carry out the plan and to review progress to encourage officials to keep their commitments.
Human rights activists say that if governments follow through on even some of the suggestions, like embarking on publicity campaigns to promote racial tolerance or teaching children about Africa's contributions to world history, it will help improve understanding across racial and ethnic lines.
Calling all nations
Leaders of the conference hoped to come to some form of agreement on these controversial issues because the fight against racism is very important to billions of people around the globe facing racial tensions in their communities.
Race is determined by six out of 100,000 genes contained in a human cell but many have yet to get beyond the difference it makes to us.
The United Nations said the conference was needed because of the rise in racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance as the world becomes increasingly interconnected.
"As we see all around us, racism and racial discrimination continue unabated," said Mary Robinson, former Irish president and the chair of the conference.
This is the third world racism conference. The previous two took place in 1978 and 1983 and were held in Geneva, Switzerland.
At the first conference, the United Nations declared that any constitution or doctrine claming racial superiority was scientifically false and morally unjust. At the second, conference participants drafted measures to fight ideologies like Nazism, Fascism and Apartheid.
Why the U.S. pulled out
From the beginning, the U.S. protested language in the conference's draft declaration that singled out Israel as racist.
To show its disagreement with the agenda, the Bush administration sent a mid-level delegation instead of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Many of the conference's participants wanted Powell to attend since he is the highest ranking black government official in U.S. history.
When the United States pulled out of the conference, Colin Powell released a statement denouncing the draft declaration's "hateful language."
"Today I have instructed our representatives at the World Conference Against Racism to return home. I have taken this decision with regret because of the importance of the international fight against racism and the contribution that this conference could have made to it," the statement said.
U.S. leaders were opposed to language introduced by several Arab nations calling Zionism racism. Zionism is the Jewish quest for an historical homeland which led to the founding of Israel.
For Palestinians and many Arabs, Zionism has meant displacement and discrimination. Palestinians consider Israel their homeland too. The conflict led to the United Nations asserting that Zionism is a form of racism in 1975, a claim they took back in 1991.
At a conference roundtable, Arafat called Israel a "racist" state and accused it of ethnic genocide.
Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson, attending the conference as a member of the Black Leadership Forum, said he was disappointed President Bush allowed the debate over Israel to determine whether the U.S. would participate.
He and many other minority leaders believe that the Bush administration's reluctance to remain at the conference showed a lack of support for the fight against racism, which has caused much pain and suffering in the U.S. "In many ways, the American delegation never walked in," Jackson said.
However, members of the U.S. delegation said the fault lay with Arab leaders who turned a conference against discrimination into a conference against Israel and an outlet for anti-American sentiments.
The trouble over Zionism was not the only problem for the United States and the European Union. They also objected to language over slavery reparations put forth by African nations.
African and some South American nations are demanding apologies from countries involved in the slave trade and colonialism. Many are calling for financial reparations, cancellation of debts, and greater market and trade access.
Former colonizers are offering more money for aid to African countries, but are rejecting the notion of paying money to make up for damage done in the past. European states are resisting giving an outright apology to African states because they are worried that it would open the door to lawsuits against them.
Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, criticized the conference for being too focused on the past and said that a debate about reparations was best avoided.
"I think reparations — given the fact that there is plenty of blame to go around for slavery, plenty of blame to go around among African and Arab states, and plenty of blame to go around among Western states — we are better to look forward and not point fingers backward," she said on NBC News.
Though some have criticized the Bush administration's decision to walk out of the conference as a pretext to avoid the reparations issue, she defended the move. "This conference spent far too much time in trying to condemn Israel and single it out," she said. "I think the United States made the right decision to leave."
But diplomats from Europe and Latin America disagreed. Brazil's secretary of state for human rights, Gilberto Sabóia, said the international community has an obligation to grapple with past injustices.
"Slavery has been a tragedy for millions of people for centuries and continues to have consequences," said Mr. Sabóia, who helped negotiate the final document on the issue. "It doesn't mean we have to remain locked in the past," he added. "But we need to understand that past to address the present and to address the future."
A chance to speak out
For the thousands of Africans, Gypsies, Kurds and others, the conference provided an opportunity to tell their story to the world with or without American participation.
One conference participant representing India was Jyothi Raj. She is a Dalit, a group in India once known as the Untouchables. Raj was disappointed that caste was not on the agenda. "We are not getting justice as we should," she said. She is not allowed to enter temples in her village because she is considered unclean.
However, she did say the conference was a big step forward for the Dalits. "Everywhere people are talking about Dalits," Raj marveled. "We are feeling connected. We are not alone. We are battling together."
Many black diplomats were disappointed when European representatives refused to apologize explicitly for the slavery, but they cheered an expression of profound remorse and the acknowledgment that the slave trade "should have always been" a crime against humanity.
"We have never had the opportunity to gather together from every country," said Alioune Tine, a human rights activist from Senegal who led a caucus of Africans and blacks in the Americas.
"Now there is enthusiasm and commitment to remind states to meet their international obligations," said Tine. "That is the next step."
The conference leader, Mary Robinson, said no one should underestimate the importance of bringing so many people together or the difficulty various governments faced in reaching an agreement to fight racism.
When negotiations over slavery and the Middle East threatened to break down last week, she said she feared the whole meeting would collapse. "We were hanging by a thread," Mrs. Robinson said.
But in the end, she said, delegates managed to cobble together an agreement to fight racial discrimination in the end. "We got a result and I think it will be very positive for human dignity," Mrs. Robinson said.
"I'm not under any illusions. It won't make a difference just because we had a conference. It will be a long, long haul. But in the end, I think it was a truly remarkable achievement. Let history judge."
What do you think? Did President Bush made the right decision? Do you think the conference on racism was a success?
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