12th August 2001
Controversial conference struggles to get off ground
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NEW YORK — The United Nations has never been as vociferously divisive as it was last week.
The rallying point of the conflict: an upcoming international conference against racism described as one of the most politically explosive meetings in UN history.
Scheduled to take place end August in South Africa, a country which broke from the shackles of decades-long apartheid, the conference could be a turning point in the global fight against racism.
That is if the conference ever takes place at all - or has the fullest participation of all 189 member states at the highest ministerial levels.
The preparatory process leading up to the conference has been mired in controversy over a wide range of controversial issues, including xenophobia, racial and gender discrimination, caste, the rights of indigenous people, the treatment of refugees and migrants, and the exploitation of women and children.
Clearly, most or some of these issues touch a raw nerve among many member states who perceive they are being singled out for condemnation. And they may well be right.
The two most contentious issues on the agenda are reparations for past slavery and for colonialsm (opposed by the US and former colonial powers such as Britain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain) and the violent racism against Palestinians by Israel (opposed by the US and Israel).
The United States, perhaps for the first time in the history of the world body, has threatened to boycott a major UN conference — unless the issue of reparations and Israel are dropped from the agenda.
"We want to go," says a State Department official rather hesitantly, "but not at any cost."
Representative Cynthia Mckiney, a Democrat from Georgia, thinks the Bush Administration's reluctance itself smacks of racism.
"I have to wonder if the Bush administration's position on the World Conference Against Racism is just politically dumb or if it is perhaps indicative of something more malignant," she adds.
An attempt by Arab delegates to describe Israeli attacks against Palestinians as a "holocaust" has been vehemently opposed by Israel which considers that label the sole monopoly of Jews who were victims of Nazi genocide.
The US and former European colonial powers are even refusing to tender a public apology for slavery and colonial exploitation because they fear that this could be used later in a court of law to extract compensation by past victims of slavery and colonialism.
Arguably, Sri Lanka itself can stake its monetary claims for all of the exploitation- of the country and its economic resources- by the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch in a bygone era.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has publicly refused to apologise for the sins against aborigines in his country.
At a UN seminar in Geneva last week, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans put it this way: "Unhappily, it's a small word beyond the capacity of the present leader of my country to say — despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Australians want him to say it, with 200,000 people marching across Sydney Harbour Bridge not so long ago just to ram the point home."
Mary Robinson, UN High Commisioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the Conference, admits that there should be "a collective recognition of the terrible exploitation and violations of human rights and crimes against humanity of the past."
"I see great merit in a willingness to have that recognition in the form of an apology," she adds.
Paradoxically, Israel which has strongly supported Jewish claims for reparations from Germany for past atrocities against Jews by Nazis is opposing the very concept of reparations.
But it has its own reasons for doing so: any attempt to internationally recognize the concept of reparations would put a future Israel in jeopardy because of potential Palestinian claims for the current atrocities in the West Bank and Gaza.
The descendants of the original Jews, who were forced labourers for the Nazis, are now receiving payments from a $4.4 billion fund set up by the German Foundation. In June, the Foundation transferred about $44 million to the US-based Jewish Claims Conference.
But 11 American lawyers appearing for Nazi-era victims have already walked away with about $52 million in legal fees. But that's another story - and another form of exploitation.
In Asia, India is strongly opposed to any examination of the caste system in that country while China has objected to an agenda item on the treatment of Tibetans.
As of Friday, a two week long meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the conference has ended in a stalemate.
But all indications are that the committee, in an unusual move, will continue to meet right up to the day when the conference is scheduled to open: Friday August 31.
The desperate search is for compromises — just to get the conference off the ground.
Editorial/ Opinion Contents
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