The United States will not attend next month's World Conference Against Racism if two contentious issues are included in the conference agenda, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
Top State Department officials plan to inform three dozen foreign diplomats today of the Bush's administration's position on the issues of Zionism as racism, and reparations for slavery and colonialism, the official said. The Washington-based ambassadors, representing several continents, are expected to meet in Foggy Bottom with Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Undersecretary of State Paula J. Dobriansky. They intend to tell the ambassadors that the United States needs their help to build support for striking the two topics.
"We need to be really clear about our position," the senior State Department official said. "We don't want anybody to be surprised when they look up on the day of Durban and wonder why we're not there."
The absence of the United States would be a severe blow to the convention, which is being billed as the most important international discussion of race ever held. Formally titled the United Nations Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, it is scheduled to start Aug. 31 for an eight-day run in the coastal South African city of Durban.
The State Department official's statement was the latest warning about the conference by the Bush administration, which has voiced its displeasure over the agenda for months. And it was a firm message to Mary Robinson, the conference's top organizer and the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who on Monday will start the last round of meetings in Geneva to discuss the agenda. A five-member State Department team will attend those discussions, a White House official said.
"I am aware that there are quite a number of hurdles," Robinson said yesterday from Geneva. She met twice with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in February and June, and once with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in February. What she heard in those meetings, she said, was encouraging.
Robinson and other conference advocates have said that the two issues in question are only proposals for the agenda. Some African Americans and African nations have said they are due reparations from countries that participated in the slave trade during the 1700s and early 1800s. The dispute over Zionism goes back to a 1975 U.N. resolution equating it with racism. The resolution was repealed 10 years ago, but some Arab organizations proposed similar language for the conference's draft declaration.
Whether the proposals will be adopted is an open question. The issues are "being discussed by small teams of negotiators behind closed doors," Robinson said. "They face a considerable challenge because time is short."
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among the organizations imploring Bush to send a delegation to the conference. Others include the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
"I think . . . that the U.S. should be at the conference," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. "I think this is an important opportunity to address these issues of race. It's something that many of us have been actively engaged in preparing for."
Others had stronger words. Wade Henderson, director of the Leadership Conference, said the United States lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission and was left out of the Kyoto pollution accord "because of a lack of leadership."
That is becoming part of the administration's form, said Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). "The Bush administration ought to get accustomed to standing alone," she said. "Hopefully they will choose to join the rest of the world and not choose to stand alone in isolation."
A Jewish member of the conference steering committee sided with Bush. "I think the U.S. should vigorously protest," said Rabbi Marvin Hire, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles. "If it's going to be a circus, the U.S. should send a very low-level delegation."
"The Arab bloc really wants to hijack the conference," he said. "I'm afraid the entire conference is going to be just a lot of shouting that has nothing to do with issues today because of the frustration over what's going on in the Middle East."
Others believe the trouble with the conference lies in its planning. Its plan for action was adopted in March, leaving little time to organize the event. An equivalent document for the World Conference on Women, held in September 1995 in Beijing, had been adopted 13 months before.
The Conference on Women, though controversial, was ushered in with an outpouring of fanfare and money. The Clinton administration donated nearly $6 million to the event, and then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was one of 50,000 attendees.
By contrast, the Conference Against Racism has been greeted with near silence in the media. President Clinton donated $250,000 on his way out of office, and the Bush administration has shown no intention to increase that sum. Only some 10,000 conference attendees are expected in Durban.
Robinson said the conference could be a success, especially if it resulted in a plan to deal with racism in the future. "This is not an easy conference to prepare for," Robinson said. "We have never addressed together the darker side of our society: racism, anti-Semitism, the mistreatment of immigrants, the riots in London by Asian youth and problems in Germany. It is a difficult issue."
In the United States, civil rights activists say a discussion of slavery and reparations would be an uncomfortable one that the Bush administration should not avoid. Henderson, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the issue should remain on the table.
"I believe that democratic principles are advanced amid vigorous and open debate," he said.
One such debate involving the conference against racism would have taken place at a congressional hearing earlier this week, but the Wednesday meeting of the House subcommittee on international operations was postponed until Tuesday by its chair, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
The postponement prompted a barrage of charges from McKinney, a senior member of the committee. She said the Bush administration officials who were slated to testify would be in Geneva next week, as would conference advocates who were to attend the hearing.
"The bottom line is that the Republicans maneuvered to protect the Bush administration from any overt criticism with respect to the world conference," McKinney said. "The Republicans in the House subverted the bipartisan way in which we've been working almost for an entire year. They want to prevent black people from having an opportunity to discuss the World Conference Against Racism in an official setting."
Aides to Ros-Lehtinen disputed that claim, saying that a key committee staffer had to travel out of the city for a family funeral. A spokesman for the committee said that such postponements were common, and that some had been made on McKinney's behalf.
Upon hearing that explanation, McKinney said, "It's an affront. The nation's business doesn't stop for any reason. There is no excuse for four weeks of planning being pulled out from under us a day before the hearing."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company