3 September 2001

Africa: The United States and Israel pull out of the Durban Racism Conference

Durban, South Africa — After days of wrangling, angry exchanges and threats that they could withdraw from the Conference Against Racism, the Americans and the Israelis have pulled out their delegations.

The contentious issue about whether Zionism, the doctrine that lead to the creation of the Jewish nation in 1948, should be equated with racism has dominated the conference in the South African port city of Durban, which opened last Friday.

From Washington, the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said in a statement released in Durban that he had instructed his representataives 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".

Even before it started, the United States and Israel downgraded the representation of their delegations for the Durban conference. The Americans said they were unhappy with the possibility of Israel being singled out for condemnation and victimized. The Israelis were simply not happy with the issue of Zionism being raised, full-stop.

But Arab and Islamic states, and other supporters of the Palestinians, have been pushing for the issue to be part of the final declaration of the week-long meeting, which goes by the full name of the Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR). The Palestinians insist that the way they are treated by the Israelis is both discriminatory and racist.

However, the Palestinian delegation seemed to have softened its stance on Zionism being officially equated with racism. It was not enough. The Americans and the Israels withdrew after failing to have what they called 'hateful' language excised from conference documents and the draft declaration. The Israelis also rejected amended mediation proposals in the text by Norway and Canada, supported by the US, dismissing the language as inappropriate.

This followed a weekend of tension and anticipation which ended in Monday's impasse and the joint US-Israeli decision to stop taking part. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, called the proceedings in Durban "an unbelievable attempt to smear Israel". Peres told a news conference in Jerusalem that an important convention that was supposed to "defend human rights" had become "a source of hatred".

South Africa, the host nation of the Racism Conference, says it "views the withdrawal of the USA or any other delegation as unfortunate and unnecessary. It will be unfortunate if a perception were to develop that the USA's withdrawal from the conference is merely a red-herring demonstrating an unwillingness to confront the real issues posed by racism in the USA and globally".

But a statement issued by Essop Pahad, a Minister of State in President Thabo Mbeki's Office, said Pretoria hoped the conference would "continue in the spirit in which it has been conducted thus far -- a melting pot of a number of perspectives." Pahad said that any delegations which withdraw from the Durban process would "deny not only this conference of their experience and insight, but will also be denying themselves a vital learning experience".

On Sunday, the South African leader said the absence of high-level delegations, from the United States and other western countries was 'regrettable'. Secretary Powell was scheduled to head his country's representatives, but his non-attendance, or 'boycott' as it has been dubbed in Durban, was announced before the conference started.

Many are calling the American 'boycott' an excuse not to discuss and address upfront the United States' own problems with racism and reparations for the slave trade..

Reed Brody, the Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, said the United States was "squandering a unique opportunity to stand against intolerance, to take pride in its own successes and to face up to the challenges in the long fight for equality at home and abroad".

The head of the Arab League, and former Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Musa, warned that the final document, whatever the wording, must be balanced, giving no one side too much weight. "What is the use of the document that will be tilted to one or the other?" asked Musa. "It will just be condemned and thrown away and not implemented at all".

Thousands of delegates in Durban, from Africa and all over the world, are also divided over the controversial issue of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and reparations. The former slavers, Britain, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands are trying to resist pressure to apologize or agree that slavery was a crime against humanity.

Belgium, which indulged in slavery only later under the infamous King Leopold in Congo, is leading the European countries who appear to support the African and African-American line that an apology is the least the former slave trading countries can offer.

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