WORLD Conference Against Racism ends as tumultuously as it starts

Saturday, September 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) _ The World Conference Against Racism ended Saturday as tumultuously as it began, with a declaration and program of action that was immediately cited as groundbreaking and momentous, hurtful and disastrous, and everything in between.

The eight-day U.N. meeting went into a ninth day when compromises on the two dominant issues _ the Middle East conflict and the legacy of slavery _ failed to materialize.

Even when deals on both issues were struck Saturday morning, last-minute attempts to add several thinly veiled references to Israel deadlocked the conference and sent diplomats scurrying. Only the imminent departure of the interpreters and some rough use of parliamentary procedure brought debate to an end and kept out the additional paragraphs.

When the final meeting was called, the president of the conference, South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, declared the documents adopted before any of the delegates had a chance to speak, sparking more anger, but no one walked out. Organizers called the conference a success.

``We have come a very long way. ... The language will resonate throughout the world,'' said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who organized the meeting.

At stake were two pledges: a declaration promising to fight racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; and a program of action spelling out how they should be fought. The documents are not legally binding, but countries will be monitored to see if they keep their promises.

The United States and Israel withdrew their delegations halfway through the conference, protesting efforts to single out Israel for criticism.

While original references condemning the ``racist practices'' of Israel and Zionism _ the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state _ were removed from the final declaration, a reference to ``the plight of the Palestinians'' remained.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said U.S. officials could not comment on the final document because they had not seen it, but indicated there were no second thoughts about the decision to withdraw.

``We appreciate the effort of other parties in the conference who thought to remove the offensive language,'' said spokeswoman Susan Pittman. ``We're confident that our withdrawal was the correct measure and hope the decision had some effect on a better but still flawed result.''

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was in San Francisco, said that it is ``unfortunate that it took this process to get results.''

Israel's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the country ``expresses satisfaction'' but that the final conference document was ``not the best.''

``The world rejected the attempts of the radical Arab nations to take over the conference and damage its intentions by turning it into a stage for attacking Israel,'' it said.

Later, ministry spokeswoman Yaffa Ben Ari declined to comment on whether Israel would have remained had the compromise been worked out earlier. But she suggested the U.S. and Israeli withdrawals led to the changes.

``There's no doubt that the withdrawal of Israel and the United States from the conference brought the turning point in relation to this issue,'' Ben Ari said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan conceded, ``It is regrettable that the useful work of the conference was overshadowed on one or two highly emotional issues, especially in the Middle East. Many hurtful things were said ... which tended to inflame the atmosphere rather than to encourage rational and constructive discussion.''

But, he added in a statement from his office in New York, ``to have left Durban without agreement would have given comfort to the worst elements in every society.''

Immediately after the document's adoption, Canada and Australia disassociated themselves from the paragraphs on the Middle East.

``We are not satisfied with this conference. Too much time has been spent on an issue which does not belong here,'' the head of the Canadian delegation, Paul Heinbecker, told the conference. ``We want to condemn at this conference the attempts to delegitimize the state of Israel.''

Speaking in Italy, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said he was pleased with the European Union and other countries for keeping any direct reference to Israel out of the final document.

``What happened in Durban was a scandal,'' Peres said in an interview with Italian news agencies. ``What occurred is that a majority of non-democratic countries tried to give democracy lessons to democratic countries. ... I think that if we hadn't left, nothing would have happened'' to improve the text.

Muslim nations led by Iran, Iraq and the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference, were also unhappy with the final text, saying not enough attention was paid to Israel and the Palestinians.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa rejected a paragraph recognizing the Holocaust, saying that Europeans were responsible for the genocide and ``are trying to spread their guilt around the world.''

Robinson and African nations immediately praised the language referring to the legacy of slavery, citing it as the most historic outcome of the conference. But again, many nations thought it did not go far enough.

``Africa had a rendezvous with history,'' said Amina Mohamed, the Kenyan mediator in the talks. ``We have an agreement on a document that is far from satisfactory, is terribly imperfect, but that provides a basis to build on, and I think, for the first time, the dignity of the black man has been recognized.''

Under the slavery deal, the conference acknowledged slavery and the slave trade as a crime against humanity and ``should always have been so.'' It also expressed an apology in the form of acknowledgment for the wrongs of slavery and colonialism and offered a package of economic assistance to Africa.

It remained unclear what the new language would mean for European fears of potential lawsuits seeking reparations, though several European delegates said on condition of anonymity their fears had been addressed.

Despite efforts to expand the grounds of discrimination that should be illegal to include religion, language and sexual orientation, the conference recommended they be limited to the current definition of race, skin color, descent and national or ethnic background.

The racism conference was the first time human and civil rights groups were allowed to participate in a U.N. conference, and many went away unhappy. Indigenous groups from the Americas joined Jewish groups in condemning the conference's outcome. Palestinian groups expressed disappointment with it as well.

``We wanted clearer language in regard to Israeli practices and policies,'' said Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinian representative to the United Nations who represented Arab countries at the conference.

U.S. human rights lawyer Chip Pitts linked the hardening of positions on the Middle East to the acrimonious atmosphere in Durban.

``Lots of issues were neglected ... because of the politicized nature of the final document,'' Pitts said. ``It was the reinforcement of the worst tendencies toward polarization.''