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WEB POSTED 09-06-2001


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UN World Conference On Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

OHCR - World Conference Against Racism


Activists, leaders incensed at U.S. gov't withdrawal of low-level delegation from World Conference Against Racism

by Askia Muhammad
White House Correspondent

DURBAN, South Africa ( dragging its feet about the level of its participation, or whether to send a delegation at all, the United States abruptly pulled out of the Third United Nations Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance Sept. 3.

It was the third day of the meeting, which has been racked by controversy surrounding Middle East tensions, and blame for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The U.S. boycotted both previous UN conferences on racism�in 1978 and 1983�for precisely the same reason. The 1978 declaration proclaimed its "solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation."

"Despite extraordinary efforts by the American government reaching back many months," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the Ranking Member of the House International Relations Committee and a senior member of the U.S. delegation, told reporters at the conference center, "it will prove impossible for the American delegation to continue participating at this conference.

"Those who have made it their goal to hijack the conference for their propaganda purposes, apparently have shown in the course of the day, a degree of rigidity and unwillingness to compromise in any reasonable sense." Rep. Lantos is strong supporter of Israel and himself a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the U.S. from Hungary.

"This means that a conference which had such high hopes and such historic promise of beginning the new Millennium with a global commitment to fight against discrimination in all its manifold ugly forms, has fallen victim to its own discriminatory practices," Rep. Lantos said.

The host South African government called the U.S. decision "unfortunate and unnecessary," promising that the meeting of more than 6,000 delegates from some 150 countries will continue in the spirit in which it had been convened and conducted up until the time of the U.S. walkout.

"It will be unfortunate if a perception were to develop that the U.S.A.�s withdrawal from the conference is merely a red-herring demonstrating an unwillingness to confront the real issues posed by racism in the U.S.A. and globally," Presidential Minister Essop Pahad said in behalf of the South African government in a statement.

"We cannot lead from the rear," the Rev. Jesse Jackson complained after the U.S. pullout, "nor lead by disengagement. We would do well, rather than to react to the unfortunate painful dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis, to break the cycle of anger and fear.

"The U.S. has a role to play not as an observer," he continued. "The U.S. alone has the power to call Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon, and convene them and have a truce, and move toward breaking the cycle of pain."

The announcement was made just as Michael Southwick, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, was set to meet with dozens of conference NGO delegates. The U.S. officials, including Congressional Black Caucus Member Donna Christian-Christiansen (D-V.I.), had to literally run from the meeting to their van.

Angry NGO leaders organized a march on the conference center to protest the U.S. pullout.

Earlier, Rev. Jackson claimed to have negotiated an agreement to eliminate language in conference documents that the Bush administration considered offensive. That language described the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza as a "new kind of apartheid."

In a hand-written statement drafted during a meeting between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Jackson, a senior Palestinian official suggested that the Palestinian Authority wanted to quell the furor surrounding the anti-Zionism language. The conference was "too important to let it fail for whatever reason," said the statement, written by Nabil Shaath, the Minister of Planning and International Cooperation.

Black NGO participants criticized the Rev. Jackson for his earlier role, however, accusing him of stirring "great confusion."

"The Black Radical Congress wishes to make clear that it does not associate itself in any way with (the) Rev. Jackson�s apparent satisfaction with the idea of omitting references to the Palestinian situation in official documents of this conference," Humberton Brown, international secretary of the Black Radical Congress said in a statement.

"The Black Radical Congress remains unequivocally supportive of the Palestinian resistance to the abuses of its national and human rights perpetrated by the State of Israel, and we stand by our belief that the official documents of this conference should refer clearly and directly to the conditions of national oppression and racism that burden the Palestinian people."

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who came as a part of the official U.S. delegation, were at odds with their government, openly expressing their frustration before the pullout. They had to leave before the decision in order to return for the end of Congress�s summer recess.

The U.S. pullout from the conference, "would not deter us in our mission," CBC Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) told reporters before the U.S. pull-out.

CBC members skirted the controversy, insisting that they focused their attention on "racism" rather than the Middle East situation. "The Middle East conflict is so sad," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). "The U.S. and the world should spare no effort to find a solution."

CBC members were also critical of President George W. Bush�s decision not to let Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Black man himself, participate in this historic meeting. U.S. complaints about the conference�s "language" should not have derailed the good intentions of the U.S. to participate in the discussions to find solutions to the ages-old problems of racism.

The U.S. itself is a "racist country," several CBC members complained, and had to be forced by concerted efforts by Reps. Johnson (D-Tex), John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) to send a delegation in the first place. Then, Rep. Johnson told The Final Call, after deciding to send a delegation that included Black members of Congress, State Department officials instructed them not to speak or engage in the official debate.

"Our voices will not be silenced," Rep. Johnson said at a session hosted by the Black Leadership Forum.

Finally, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Southwick, the delegation leader attempted to snub the opening session of the conference by not attending. Reps. Johnson and Conyers took it upon themselves to sit in the U.S. chairs until, she said, Secretary Powell himself called and told his diplomats to "put someone in that chair."



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