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Will US Boycott Conference on Racism? - 2001-07-27

The United States has decided to boycott an international conference on racism if organizers insist on discussing reparations for African slavery and a motion equating Zionism with racism. The Bush Administration is urging the conference not to get distracted from its focus on fighting racism.

Preparations for next month's World Conference on Racism include discussion of an Arab-backed proposal calling Zionism a form of racism. Zionism is the movement that helped create Israel. The draft proposal equates Israel's treatment of the Palestinians with the Nazi Holocaust of World War II that killed six million Jews.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warns that if conference organizers include that in the agenda, the United States will not go. "That is as wrong as wrong can be and the president is proud to stand by Israel and by the Jewish community and send a signal that no group around the world will meet with international acceptance and respect if its purpose is to equate Zionism with racism," he said.

The Zionism proposal seeks to revive a 1975 U.N. resolution saying the Jewish movement is the same as racism. That resolution was repealed in 1991 in a move led by Israel and the United States.

Mr. Fleischer stressed that the Bush Administration is ready to join the conference in Durban, South Africa but only if organizers reject the Zionism debate and the issue of reparation for African slavery. "The representatives of the United States government have their bags packed and are ready to go and attend this conference," he said. "The only thing stopping them from going will be if the conferees divert the conference from its important mission of fighting racism and get into issues such as equating Zionism with racism or engaging in issues facing backwards on reparations that serve to divide nations as opposed to bringing people together to confront the present problems that the world faces dealing with racism."

Many African countries want financial compensation for the damages of slavery and colonialism, saying the industrialized world profited from an experience that made Africa poorer. The United States and the European Union oppose a financial settlement.

Like former President Clinton, Mr. Fleischer says President Bush rejects calls for reparations because they focus on sorting-out past inequities rather than fighting racism today. "For this conference to be successful," he said, "it's important that they focus on the current problems of racism and not get lost in the tangle that is presented by trying to address long-ago inequity that involved Africans trading Africans, Arabs trading Africans, Europeans trading and enslaving Africans, Americans doing the same. It quickly becomes a point of 'Who pays reparations to who?'"

Conference organizers begin two weeks of talks Monday in Geneva to decide on a draft text. U.S. officials say a decision on attending the conference will depend on the outcome of that meeting.