On paper, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance (WCAR) seems like an idea whose time has come. By focusing global attention on one of the world's most insidious evils and assembling thousands of human rights activists, such an event has the potential to galvanize an international movement for racial justice. In reality, the event, scheduled for August 31 to September 7 in Durban, South Africa, is mired in a morass of motives and evasions, and is proving to be even more unwieldy than its title.

For starters, the United States has threatened to take its ball and go home "if it has problems with the language of the draft declaration." Other nations also have expressed opposition to some of the declaration language, but the United States is the only nation threatening an outright boycott.

In particular, the United States opposes the formulation linking Zionism to racism, and language that refers to the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a "crime against humanity," which would lay the groundwork for an argument that former slave-trading nations owe economic reparations. As of this writing, the Bush administration has not decided whether to participate. Bush also may decide to participate but send a low-level delegation as an implicit rebuke.

Conference supporters in the United States have pushed for the participation of Secretary of State Colin Powell as an example of how this country has integrated the descendants of enslaved Africans, and as a high-level expression of national concern for issues of racism. But California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and this nation's main liaison to the conference, said Powell's participation is unlikely. "Unless the anti-Israel language is removed," said Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, "it would be inappropriate" for Powell "to dignify the conference with his presence."

The U.S. presence has already been muted. While Washington contributed $6 million to the 1995 U.N. Conference on the Status of Women in Beijing, it provided just $250,000 for the Durban affair. Organizers note distressingly that without high-level U.S. participation, the conference will lack the gravity it deserves and lessen the impact of any resulting resolutions.

A U.S. boycott of such a significant global conference would be an outrageous abdication of global leadership, but it would fit the arrogantly isolationist image the Bush administration has been so busy cultivating. It would be a mistake, however, to single out this administration as an aberration. The United States also boycotted the two previous U.N. racism conferences in 1978 and 1983. At that time, the objectionable language concerned condemnations of Zionism and the apartheid policies of South Africa (a country then supported by the United States).

The official nomenclature of those previous conferences, "World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination," was expanded to include "xenophobia and related forms of intolerance" as a way to get the ethnic and religious turmoil that has marred the post-Cold War world into the mix. As a result, conference planning has been a nightmare of logistics; blizzards of policy papers have been circulated at regional meetings in attempts to negotiate language that accommodates the interests of the aggrieved.

For example, India reportedly has been lobbied by E.U. nations to oppose "crime against humanity" language in return for the European Union's opposition to language condemning India's caste oppression against the Dalit (derisively called "untouchable") population. Arab nations rightfully want to excoriate Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, but wish to evade discussion of Kurd oppression or the racist vestiges of the Arab slave trade (including charges of continuing slavery in the African countries of Sudan and Mauritania).

The issue of racial justice long has motivated activist groups in the United States (which is sending the largest number of groups to the conference) and the opportunity for solidarity with like-minded folks in other lands offers the real potential for a global justice movement. Despite the WCAR's many obstacles, that possibility is too good to pass up.


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