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
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.