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Tough Talks: The United Nations Racism Conference

Three experts discuss the aftermath of the United Nations racism conference.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    In the end, what was accomplished at the UN Racism Conference? For answers and opinions, we turn to Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the NAACP. He attended a non-governmental organization session of the conference in Durban. Former Ambassador William Luers. He's now the chairman and President of the United Nations Association of the United States, a group that advocates stronger U.S.-UN ties. He was a Foreign Service officer for 31 years. And we will be joined shortly by Representative Tom Lantos of California; he was a U.S. delegate as part of the delegation to Durban.

    Mr. Luers, was this conference with all of its drama and all of the setting, was it a success for a failure?

  • WILLIAM LUERS:

    I guess you can ask that about any UN meeting. My sense is that it's a tremendous success that 165 nations can sit together for ten days and talk about what is arguably the most contentious issue among human beings: racism. Disorderly, passionate, unbalanced, unfair, but nonetheless a…an effort to reflect so many people, the concerns of so many people who are not heard anywhere in the world. I think from that standpoint, one has to say that the UN the only place where this could happen. Give voice to worries and concerns and passions.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's follow up on that point. You say that so many people who are not heard anywhere else in the world got to be heard. But all we heard about in this country were the debates over Zionism and slavery and…were there other things which were obscured by those debates?

  • WILLIAM LUERS:

    Well, I think so. I wasn't there but we had a delegation from UNA there, and from my understanding is many of the issues, virtually every country came under some observation on the part of the NGOs and the member states with regard to problems within their countries. I think this is the first time in which countries have tried to put the blame on other people but have recognized that within their own societies, they have problems. I mean the Roma issue, which is not talked about very much, the gypsies of Europe.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Explain to us because it's not heard about very much we'd like to know.

  • WILLIAM LUERS:

    Well, the gypsies of Europe have been a downtrodden group, discriminated against for many hundreds of years. And now their cause is being addressed openly within these countries and was discussed at the conference and was specifically listed as they should be given rights to education and to housing. And the black Brazilians got a voice about the problems they're having in Brazil. The whole range of issues of Africa, it wasn't simply about slavery, particularly in the NGO conference, I understand, that in country after country individual Africans spoke of discrimination within their country against them.

    Now this type of thing is important to most of the world. I mean, we were in this country obsessed this summer by the sexual habits of one of our congressmen. And these issues are important issues that they were talking about in Durban. I guess I would have to say that they're disturbing the way they were discussed. I think some of the more outspoken members of the delegations captured and almost carried the conference away but the good news is it ended okay.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask Mr. Shelton for his take on that.

  • HILARY SHELTON:

    I agree with the ambassador. There were so many important issues that were to be discussed at this conference, that were discussed at this conference. To sit down with so many people from across the world to talk about the struggles, to address issues of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia was very interesting to us.

    We learned a lot from speaking to them and wished that our delegation had been led by our head of state like 17 of the delegations that participated in the conference. Issues like AIDS, issues like the disparate treatment of people of color; that are different from the majority of the population in the country. I sat down in my office with representatives from the Romas from the gypsies of Czechoslovakia, as we talked about their issues and concerns, their disparate treatment in their own country, it was so similar to our own that we just laughed because we had so much in common.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Excuse me. But one of the issues, one of the big issues which American civil rights groups like yours took to Durban and didn't get satisfaction on was this issue of reparations or even an apology for slavery and the slave trade.

  • HILARY SHELTON:

    Well, we actually did get some satisfaction. We have advanced those issues. The issue of reparations for the transatlantic slave trade was very much front and center. Those discussions are very much alive. It's very clear they need to be continued to be discussed.

    It's also very clear that we have nations; heads of unions that still refuse to have those discussions. One of the biggest problems with racism today is the refusal of countries, the refusal of legitimate leadership to talk about these issues that affect smaller segments of their societies.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, speaking of a nation that decided not to participate, at least after the first few days, Congressman Tom Lantos joins us. You were part of the delegation in Durban that decided, in fact, to walk out. You said at one point that you felt that the participation in this conference made a mockery of the subject. Do you still now that it's over and you've seen the final document, do you still believe that's true?

  • REP. TOM LANTOS:

    I certainly do. This was a conference, which showed enormous promise. What would be more uplifting than to begin the 21st century by saying that racism, discrimination, persecution, slavery are things of the past and we are moving ahead in a constructive direction? But the extremists in the Islamic and Arab world hijacked the conference, and the conference, designed to deal with discrimination itself became a discriminatory conference. It decided to discriminate against one country and one country only, and that was the state of Israel.

    There was no discussion of slavery in the Sudan, there was no discussion of the outrageous behavior of the Taliban in Afghanistan, no discussion of Chinese suppression of Tibet — no discussion of Saudi suppression of women, just the issue of the Middle East. It was an outrage and I'm very proud of Colin Powell who recalled the American delegation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, Congressman Lantos, Mr. Shelton just said lots of other things were discussed, Mr. Luers said lots of other things did were discussed and that the United States did not serve a purpose by not participating.

  • REP. TOM LANTOS:

    Well, that's absolutely untrue. The whole focus of the conference was to be a punitive expedition against the state of Israel. That was the issue which mesmerized the conference. There was a lynch mob atmosphere there. And while in some committees there were all kinds of discussions, the focus was to single out the state of Israel for international opprobrium and denunciation. That is what the conference was all about.

    The final document was not as bad as some of the earlier drafts. But even the final document is an outrage because the final document does not deal with discrimination in all of the countries, which had political pull at the conference. The notion that Sudan, a country practicing slavery as we speak, is not criticized, is an indication of the unfairness of this conference. This conference stands self-condemned and it will be a dark chapter in the history of the United Nations.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Ambassador Luers, I'm sure you couldn't be more opposite than Congressman Lantos in your assessment of this conference but a chance to respond at least to his comment that for instance that there was a lynch mob mentality toward Israel and friends of Israel.

  • WILLIAM LUERS:

    Well, Tom Lantos was there. He was part of it. And I think thanks to a large degree to his efforts and persistence, the language against Zionism and against Israel was removed. And I think the fact that he stood there and he argued the case for this single-minded concentration, which was unjust, there's no question about it…the purpose of this conference was not to single out individual nations but to talk about the generic issues and how they affected the whole range of countries that were involved. I think the fact that the Zionism is racism was removed should remove a lot of the problems that, I think, Tom Lantos mentioned.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Did that debate, Ambassador Luers, did that debate stop the conference from accomplishing even more?

  • WILLIAM LUERS:

    I think at least for the American media and for the United States that issue alone casts a very powerful spell over any interest in furthering the work that was done at the conference. It was a negative. On the other hand, it didn't appear, Zionism as racism was eliminated. And I remember that from '75 to '92 that was in all resolutions of the UN; today it will not be. And I think Tom Lantos deserves a lot of credit as does the delegation and the U.S. delegation and particularly the European delegations who finally had it removed.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay. Let me turn to Hilary Shelton here for a moment because I'm curious about two things. One is Congressman Lantos' comment about Sudan and slavery right now, which wasn't addressed, and also Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, who was on "Meet the Press" yesterday, and she said that she thought that reparations was an issue of the past that we shouldn't be involved in at all. Respond to those two things.

  • HILARY SHELTON:

    Well, let me start with the first point first. The issue of slavery was addressed in broad. The final language in the UN document speaks very clearly to slavery being an abomination across the board, whether we're talking about the U.S. or any other country, including Sudan.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So no country should have been singled out.

  • HILARY SHELTON:

    Exactly. That's the same argument as a matter of fact that we made going in about Israel being singled out. We don't believe Israel should have been singled out going in. We did believe the language of the Zionism equals racism was unfair and not germane to the scope of the conference. Very clearly those issues are on the table and clearly were to do two things that were successful: One is removing that very troubling language and the other is making sure that issues of slavery across the board were addressed, including in the Sudan. I think Mr. Lantos was a little misleading as he talked about those issues not being addressed at all for indeed they were. The last question, if you'll repeat it…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    About Condoleezza Rice's comments about reparations.

  • HILARY SHELTON:

    I think that she misses the point. The point of addressing issues of reparations or repairing the damage that was created through the transatlantic slave trade is something we live with even today. It's not just an issue of the past but it's an issue of today; that is, if we look at almost every measuring spoon of our society, whether it's education, employment, home ownership, we find that African-Americans, the descendants of transatlantic slaves, are behind the curve of just about any other group in this country. So not to draw those conclusions and to see the direct correlation to the transatlantic slave trade I think is just, she's just missing the point.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tom Lantos, a chance to respond to what Hilary Shelton just said, but also, I'd like you to give us an overview about whether we should have gone in the first place, whether everyone wasn't just biting off more than they could chew on this issue?

  • REP. TOM LANTOS:

    Well, I thought that we should have gone. And I know that no one wanted to be there more desperately than Colin Powell, who made it clear before this conference began in Durban that he will not go if obnoxious language and the singling out of a country is part of the document. Now, I find it amusing that some of my colleagues on the panel are so proud of the fact that Zionism is racism as a phrase is not part of the document. Well, that's true. Zionism was a response to centuries old persecution of Jews in Europe. It had nothing to do with racism. It was a type of Goebbels type propaganda slogan, which the UN kicked out a long time.

    But even the final document is tendentious, it is unfair, it is inappropriate. And the fact that there is a historic recognition of slavery does not deal with the issue that slavery, as we speak, is being practiced in the Sudan. There was silence about it. There was silence about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. This is a generic issue. My feeling is that the conference was basically a failure, and my judgment is that our government handled our participation and our withdrawal in a singularly principled fashion, and I congratulate Colin Powell.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Lantos, Ambassador Luers, and Hilary Shelton, thank you all very much for joining us.

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