DURBAN, South Africa -- Secretary of State Colin Powell's announcement that the United States would join Israel in withdrawing from the World Conference Against Racism is discouraging news for the cause of human rights. It also bodes ill for the world's ability to handle crucial conflicts over globalization.
Since late July I've been in Geneva for the preparatory meeting for the World Conference, then in South Africa for the conference itself, as a volunteer assisting one or more of the major international human rights organizations. The specific trigger for the walkout decision was said to be the continued presence in the conference documents of language singling out Israel for racist violation of the rights of Palestinians. But contrary to the impressions left by statements of the United States and Israel, and the media reporting thus far, only a minute portion of the years of work that has gone into this conference directly pertains to the conflict in the Middle East.
As highlighted in a press conference by several key organizations (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), the World Conference is addressing many substantive issues of crucial importance. These include the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, the persistence of "caste" systems in India and elsewhere, racist disparities in law enforcement and the administration of justice, and the adverse impact of racism in health care and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Inexcusably, these issues affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of sufferers have been allowed to fall by the wayside, and effective action to address them is now threatened by the irresponsible and self-indulgent U.S. departure over the Middle East language.
Conflict between Israelis and Palestinians at this forum was inevitable. The suicide bombers killing innocent Israeli victims deserve our condemnation, and the victims' families deserve our sympathy. Anti-Semitism anywhere is wrong. And Israeli sympathizers recognize the unique circumstances underlying the founding of Israel as a refuge for the Jewish people.
But there is also much understandable anger at the steadfast U.S. support for Israel despite the persistence of policies (such as assassination, torture and arbitrary arrests, all of which have increased of late) that are clearly against international human rights norms. This is, nevertheless, no reason to single out Israel as the lone state mentioned in the draft documents, when racism exists all over the world.
What folks outside Durban don't seem to realize is that there were only a few problematic lines pertaining to Israel and the occupied territories in documents that were hundreds of paragraphs long. The "Zionism is racism" language was deleted prior to Durban. And the few remaining problematic lines of the draft text were all "bracketed," i.e., none had been adopted.
It's a common negotiating strategy in international forums, just as in business and everyday life, for positions to be polarized before eventual resolution. Since it was relatively early in the conference and there was plenty of time to make progress, why didn't the United States at least wait a couple of more days to give the conference a fighting chance?
This action of the Bush administration weaves another strand in the pattern not just of unilateralism but of arrogance and even active anti-internationalism represented by its calling into question U.S. commitments and treaties. Can the United States, with its shameful history of slavery and racial discrimination, really afford to be one of the few nations in the world not joining in the collective fight against racism?
Respect, tolerance and the genuine attempt to understand one another are at the heart of the battle for human dignity and against racism. But to implement these values, we have to be at the negotiating table in the first place, and not walk out like spoiled children.
Increasing global interdependence means that we can no longer ignore events that spill across borders and threaten stability at home or abroad; the issues implicate our direct individual and national interests. Collaboration with other nations and non-state actors will be required to come up with innovative solutions to such intractable problems. At the very least, the Durban walkout shows failures in preparation, negotiating skills, vision, and leadership on the part of the Bush administration. At worst, the administration risks lasting damage to international relations during a period when good relations will be more important than ever.
The writer, a lawyer and businessman, has served as a delegate of the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations to U.N. human rights bodies and conferences.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company