September 7, 2001

Dumb and Dumber in Durban

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

LOS ANGELES, CA — A relative handful of delegates at the U.N. World Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa, are coming perilously close to doing what few thought was humanly possible. They may make President Bush look smart.

Bush was savaged for weeks before the conference by top U.N. officials, Asian and African leaders, and even some of his European partners, for his wrong-headed threat to boycott the conference before delegates had arrived and resolutions proposed and discussed.

The President's pig-headed-ness bothered Secretary of State Colin Powell. Aides had said that the general badly wanted to attend the conference. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed this when he reiterated Powell's announcement that the U.S. was withdrawing its second-string delegation from the conference. In his statement, Powell again said that he had hoped the conference would be an important step in the battle against international racism.

Powell understood what those hot-headed delegates — bound and determined to use the conference as a bully-pulpit against Israel — either forgot or don't give a hang about. The conference was supposed to draw up a battle plan to combat racism wherever it reared its ugly head in the world. The implication being that there are few countries with clean racial hands.

The conference's provisional agenda drawn up in 1997 called for nations to identify victims of discrimination, develop prevention, education, and protection measures, and provide long term strategies to bolster national and international efforts to combat discrimination.

Even as Bush saber-rattled against the conference, there was still some hope that the United States might show up at the table. U.N. and South African officials had already caved in to U.S. pressure and exorcised from the agenda the disputed resolution equating Zionism with racism. The resolution, passed in 1975 by a deeply divided U.N., was vague and ill-defined and had no force of law. It did nothing to alleviate Palestinian suffering. Instead, it made Israel dig its heels deeper and refuse more concessions on Palestinian rights. The U.N., with the consent of Arab nations and the Palestinians, wised up to the blunder and overwhelmingly voted to dump the resolution in 1991.

As for reparations, the other item that Bush incessantly complained about, the conference's provisional agenda brackets the word "compensatory," and makes it clear there is no consensus on the issue. It would have been an exercise in futility for conference planners to try to reach one. There are dozens of reparations activist groups, and they have repeatedly stumbled on the question of what, how, and to whom reparations should be paid. There is no reason to believe that they will be able to instantly agree on a reparations plan in Durban.

But by obsessively focusing on reparations and Israel, the big danger is that the conference will give short shrift to the ethnic warfare that still rages in Bosnia, caste oppression in India, the plight of the Kurds in Turkey and other Mideast countries, skinhead violence in Germany and Britain, the continuing theft of Indian lands in Brazil, Mexico, and Guatemala, and the genocidal ethnic attacks in Congo and Rwanda. The conference could have called on the carpet those corrupt African and Asian dictatorial regimes that elevate violence and terror to state policy against dissidents, many of whom are invariably of different ethnic groups.

The conference also could have demanded that Western nations firmly go on record opposing racism and intolerance. If they did, Canada and Australia couldn't tap dance around its racial treatment of Indians and Aborigines. And if the U.S. had stayed, it could have been called out on its racial policies toward blacks and Latinos.

If the hot-head delegates had not rudely shoved the conference from its initial mandate, it might even have been able to break the logjam on the two stumbling block issues of Mideast violence and reparations. It could have reiterated the need for Israel and the Palestinians to return to the peace table. This is the still the only appropriate place to hammer out a program to redress Palestinian grievances. Israel and the Bush administration would have been hard pressed to object to this. And the conference could have gotten the Western nations and African leaders to agree that moving faster on debt relief, vastly increasing funds for AIDS treatment and prevention programs, pouring more aid into development programs, and negotiating more equitable trade pacts with non-white nations and not simply shelling out billions to individuals is the best way to repair the damage wreaked by slavery and colonialism.

Conference organizers poured four years of sweat into bringing white and non-white nations together to figure out a way to put teeth into the struggle against global racism. But because of the stubborn pique of some delegates, their efforts may go down the tubes. And what's worse, they made Bush look smarter than themselves.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and president of the National Alliance for Positive Action (

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