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Rocky Start for Harmony

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/09/01; September 1, 2001.]

Politics, Disputes Threaten Global Quest for Racial Equity

By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent
Chicago Tribune, August 31, 2001.

JOHANNESBURG -- A global conference called to promote racial harmony is threatening to dissolve into acrimony as scores of nations gather to pledge themselves against human intolerance--while struggling to keep their own skeletons of discrimination firmly in the closet.

The United Nations World Conference on Racism begins Friday in the South African port city of Durban but is already bogged down in Middle East politics and the contentious topic of slavery reparations.

Other explosive issues, ranging from the caste system in India to the legacy of African colonialism to human rights in Tibet, also have sparked friction, embarrassment and some bare-knuckled political maneuvering.

The Bush administration's decision to limit U.S. participation, because of anti-Israeli language in the summit's draft declaration, has overshadowed all other disputes.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to attend after Arab states proposed language condemning "foreign occupation founded on settlements" as "a crime against humanity," a thinly veiled reference to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

A mid-level U.S. diplomat, Michael Southwick, will represent the United States instead, but only to lobby for changes in any final race conference texts. Israel also has reportedly downgraded its delegation.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Jewish and Palestinian delegates at a parallel racism forum for non-governmental organizations in Durban accused each other of harassment. Chanting Palestinians disrupted an anti-Semitism meeting. And some Palestinian delegates accused Jewish organizations of handing out pro-Israeli literature.

"The Middle East war is being fought under UN tents in Durban," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, a delegate with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York. "It's beginning to feel like a pretty racist anti-racism conference."

Such rows were probably inevitable, given the staggering range of grievances being brought to the table at the weeklong UN meeting, formally titled the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Having set itself the daunting goal of devising a framework to "eradicate all forms of racism" and to "examine whether governments have delivered on their promises made," the UN has unleashed an acrimonious round of finger-pointing and put many countries on the spot.

The United States isn't the only country to scorn the high-minded gathering. France is sending an anemic delegation, fearing--human-rights groups say--that African nations will voice demands for reparations for colonial-era injustices such as slavery, a subject that the United States and many European governments consider anathema.

Mugabe Begs Off

Ironically, Robert Mugabe, the president of embattled Zimbabwe, is believed to have begged off attending the conference for the opposite reason. Africa watchers say he dreaded being questioned about his race-based politics, especially the bullying of white farmers off their land.

But even those countries that haven't snubbed the conference have been fighting ferocious, behind-the-scenes political battles to keep their particular issues off the agenda.

India, which is sensitive about its caste distinctions, is a case in point. Though its caste system is not listed under the 21 types of discrimination recognized by the UN, India has lobbied to keep the plight of its 240 million lower-class "untouchables," or Dalits, from being included in the conference's final declaration. The Dalits, the pariahs of India's ancient five-caste hierarchy, are often condemned to poverty, working menial jobs and rarely intermarrying with other classes.

New Delhi has argued vehemently that "caste-ism" is different from racism and that, in any case, the practice already has been outlawed. But one paragraph covering discrimination "on the basis of work and descent" remains in the provisional declaration.

"I don't know if it will survive a vote," said Vincent Manoharan, a Dalit delegate with the Indian human-rights group People's Education for Action and Liberation. "India will withhold its support from any other country that votes to keep such language in."

Using Hardball Tactics

China also has resorted to hardball tactics at the world summit of human tolerance.

Beijing lobbied hard to bar Tibetans from being accredited to the conference. Tibet's long struggle for autonomy is an acute embarrassment to China's Communist regime. In the end, only two Tibetan organizations were allowed to participate among some 6,000 other ethnic delegates from around the world.

"It has been very hard to make ourselves heard," said Chingdak Koren, a representative of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader. "Racism has become a game of politics."

China is one of three countries--including Pakistan and Iran—that quietly have ensured that discrimination against refugees also is omitted from discussions in Durban, human-rights groups say. All three countries are grappling with xenophobia against displaced populations of foreigners inside their borders. In Pakistan and Iran, the refugees are Afghans. In China, they are North Koreans.

Koren, the Tibetan, expressed disappointment that the Middle East confrontation has obscured other groups' struggles to be heard.

"The Israelis and Palestinians have almost hijacked the whole racism conference, and that is unfortunate," she said. "There are so many other injustices that are being ignored."

Just how effective the conference will be, with or without all the political backbiting, is still open to debate.

Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who is heading the meeting, has promised "to make it a conference of actions and not just words." The UN will insist on follow-up mechanisms to hold countries accountable for their racism records, Robinson has said.

A Call for Action

"Every country has its dirty linen, so this is a delicate task," said Reed Brody, a delegate with the New York-based

Human Rights Watch. "Everybody `urges' governments to do this or that. We want to see some concrete action."

The conference, which is expected to attract dozens of heads of state, runs through Sept. 7.

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