Mon, 03 Sep 2001

A burden for Durban

All the high-flying plans for the United Nations' anti-racism conference in Durban have crashed and burned before the meeting can even get underway.

American Secretary of State Colin Powell, protesting against the position adopted by a number of Arab countries which want to see Zionism branded a form of racism, won't participate in the summit. Israel will also boycott the meeting -- it has no intention of presenting itself to be pilloried by the rest of the world.

Hostility characterizes the debate so far, the participants still far apart and not getting any closer to reconciliation. The argument is in danger of killing off any practical initiatives aimed at tackling xenophobia and ethnic and religious discrimination.

Two reasons lay behind the United States boycott and both can be traced back to American domestic policy. For one, Jewish groups have been applying tremendous pressure in the United States. Since the conflict in the Middle East has peaked again and again in recent months, every attempt to ease tensions between Israel and the Arab countries has failed. In this light, Israel's decision not to go to Durban comes as no great surprise.

However, Washington has another, quite different problem with the conference against racism. If the U.S. administration were to lend its support to any document condemning slavery and related crimes, it would give a boost to all those groups and individuals in the US demanding reparations. One team of black lawyers has already announced it is preparing charges along such lines.

Without U.S. participation, the Durban conference will be unable to send a strong signal against racism and discrimination around the globe. Durban -- already the name stands for confrontation and not for reconciliation. And the chances of this changing look very slim indeed.

-- Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Germany