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Background: Racism Conference

A background report on Secretary of State Colin Powell's decision to boycott the U.N. Racism Conference.

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    Borrowing an image from the Olympics, the city of Durbin, South Africa, is working hard to promote the upcoming UN conference against racism. 160 delegations will discuss several hot-button issues: The death penalty, China's control of Tibet, India's caste system, and reparations for slavery and colonialism.

    But for the Bush administration, the touchiest issue is Zionism. The Israeli government defines that term as "the yearning of Jews the world over for their historical homeland." But Palestinians consider much of modern-day Israel their homeland, and to them, Zionism means displacement and racism. According to the latest Durbin language: "The world conference recognizes with deep concern the increase of the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority."

  • It also states:

    "We call for the cessation of all the practices of racial discrimination to which the Palestinians and other inhabitants of the Arab territories occupied by Israel are subjected." Last Friday President Bush warned that U.S. could boycott Durbin.


    We have made it very clear through Colin Powell's office that we will have no representative there so long as they pick on Israel, so long as they continue to say Zionism is racism. If they use the forum as a way to isolate our friend and strong ally, we will not participate.


    When the news came that Powell would not go to Durbin, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. Is still deciding whether to send a lower-level delegation.


    All along we stated our concerns about several critical elements, and you heard very clearly from the President on Friday that the elements that most concerned us and bothered us at this point were the offensive language about Israel and the singling out of Israel in many of the conference documents. We worked very hard to get rid of this, but we haven't, at this point, been able to do that. It's clear to us now that the Secretary will not go to this conference, or the Secretary will not attend this conference.


    If the U.S. skips Durbin altogether, it wouldn't be the first time it's boycotted a world racism meeting. It stayed home in the '70s and '80s when the U.N. General Assembly regularly approved language equating Zionism with racism. That language was dropped in 1991. Still, Washington's position has come under harsh criticism by Palestinians and human rights leaders.


    The message of Durbin 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.


    In the last few days, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has worked with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, urging the countries to drop the Zionism language so that the meeting doesn't fall apart.


    If this conference is to succeed, there is an acute need for common ground. The conference must help heal old wounds without reopening them. It must confront the past, but most importantly, it must help set a new course against racism in the future.


    The weeklong conference begins Friday.