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US to Send Representatives to UN Racism Conference - 2001-08-29

The United States has decided to send representatives to Durban, South Africa for a U.N. conference on racism that opens Friday. But whether they will actually take part has not yet been decided.

Whether the United States takes part or just sends observers to this conference still depends on the ability of American diplomats at this late hour to get language critical of Israel language equating Zionism with racism - stripped from a draft proposal.

"And how that process goes will determine the extent and nature of our participation in the conference," says State Department Spokesperson Richard Boucher.

The issue has already drawn strong criticism from President Bush and prompted Secretary of State Colin Powell to decide not to attend the meeting over protests by American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and others. Arab nations want Israel's treatment of Palestinians to be part of the discussions. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, thinks the United States should not allow its opposition to one item on the agenda to keep it from attending.

" The Arab League has made it clear that they want a discussion in the resolution of Israel's policy toward Palestinians. The formula, Zionism is racism, is one that they're not wedded to. However, the administration has shown no willingness to even have Israeli policy discussed. That's wrong," Mr. Zogby says.

Harold Koh, who served as the top American diplomat for Human rights during the Clinton administration, expects the United States will take part but at a level that won't have much of an impact.

"I think Secretary Powell missed an opportunity to go to represent the United States to tell his own story as an example of America's story and to help shape the emerging global agenda on racism, " he says. " Without us there, that voice is not going to be there and I think that's too bad. "

The anti-Israel language is not the only problem the United States has with the U.N. conference on racism. The Bush administration also objects to proposals that have been circulating for years calling for reparations to be paid for the slave trade.