The tendency to fear strangers (xenophobia) seems to be hard-wired into human nature. And that makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective; since humans in antiquity couldn't know the values that motivated strangers, they had to treat them as threats. But fear and suspicion too often led to mutual hatreds, and voila: the brutal tribalism of human history.
The march of civilization can be seen as an ongoing attempt to corral our inherent, perhaps genetic, xenophobia.
In that sense, the UN's World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance, running from Aug. 28 through Sept. 7 in Durban, South Africa, is a positive development. By calling the conference, the UN brings global recognition to the common struggle against the tribal impulses that mar human history. And by assembling groups of human-rights activists from around the globe the event will help forge important links.
Unfortunately, the event threatens to showcase the very tribal tendencies it was seeking to combat. As of this writing, for example, the U.S. has yet to decide whether to send a delegation or boycott the event completely. The U.S. objects to language linking Zionism to racism and wording that refers to the transatlantic slave trade as a "crime against humanity," which would lay the groundwork for an argument that former slave-trading nations owe economic reparations to slavery's victims.
If the Bush administration decides to boycott the conference, it won't be the first time this country has taken that action. The U.S. also boycotted the UN's two previous racism conferences in 1978 and 1983. The objectionable language then included criticisms of Zionism and the apartheid regime of South Africa, which was an American ally at that time.
But a boycott by the U.S. of this event at this time would be an egregious abdication of global leadership. Other nations also have expressed opposition to some of the declaration language, but, according to Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights and the primary convener of the conference, the U.S. is the only nation threatening an outright boycott of the conference.
The U.S presence already has been muted. While the U.S. government contributed $6 million to the 1995 UN Conference on the Status of Women, held in Beijing, it provided just $250,000 for the Durban affair. Most of the scant media coverage the conference has received in the U.S. has been negative--stressing the difficulties over the Zionism-equals-racism issue. But, organizers note distressingly, without high-level participation of the U.S. the conference would lack the international gravity it deserves and lessen the chance that the resulting resolutions would be taken seriously.
A U.S. boycott not only would reinforce the isolationist image the Bush administration has worked so hard to earn, it also would squander an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate how far it has gone in integrating formerly disdained "minority" populations into the mainstream. Secretary of State Colin Powell, as the head of an official U.S. delegation, would speak louder than all the righteous rhetoric likely to be heard.
But the U.S. government's immature inability to withstand criticism for a horrendous history of racial subjugation is allowing the administration's cooler heads to submit to the xenophobes within.
The formulation of Zionism equals racism is a diversion that prevents a serious discussion of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. Insisting that all Zionists are racist unfairly taints too many.
But to avert discussion about Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and its brutal treatment of Palestinians is an evasion for which history will judge us harshly.
But that's not the only evasion on tap at the conference. For example, India reportedly has been lobbied by European Union nations to oppose "crime against humanity" language in return for the EU's opposition to language condemning India's caste oppression against the Dalit (derisively called the "untouchable") population. Arab nations rightfully want to excoriate Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, but wish to evade discussions 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).
Despite these problems, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance, offers a rare opportunity for the human family to lay out a basic formula of how we treat each other and design global guidelines to continue the march of civilization against humanity's lesser angels.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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