Accessibility links

Breaking News

World Conference Against Racism Opens - 2001-08-31

The World Conference Against Racism begins Friday, after months of haggling over the agenda. In the weeks leading up to the summit, most of the world has been preoccupied with two controversial issues - whether Zionism equals racism, and reparations for slavery. Delegates are expected to deal with a wide variety of other topics as well.

For weeks, the world has wondered whether the United States would attend the World Conference Against Racism, or carry through on its threat to boycott.

The Bush administration still says the draft declaration to be adopted at the end of the conference contains what it calls objectionable language in relation to Israel.

But the U.S. government has sent a low-level delegation to the talks, hoping to influence the final wording of the declaration. It does not, however, include Secretary of State Colin Powell, the first African-American to hold that office. U.S. officials have refused to say whether their team will even participate in all of the sessions.

Over the past few weeks, the issue of whether the United States will attend has overshadowed many of the other matters to be addressed.

Although the Durban meeting is commonly referred to as a racism conference, its full title is the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. That covers a lot.

The main point is to discuss the sources and causes of ethnic discrimination, as well as identifying the different forms it takes around the world.

Delegates will also try to find ways to prevent racism, largely through education and legal protections for marginalized groups.

Those groups include people of African descent, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and other minorities who face discrimination in their day-to-day lives. In that context, racism touches just about every country on Earth. More than 100 nations have sent delegations to Durban.

Some critics believe the conference is trying to do too much, and, therefore, will not be able to accomplish anything at all. But delegates hope they will be able to make concrete steps toward wiping racism off the face of the Earth.

The conference location is considered especially symbolic. The host country, South Africa, emerged from the grips of its racist apartheid regime just seven years ago. After decades of racial oppression, South Africa has blossomed into a vastly more multiethnic society. And it made the transition, for the most part, peacefully. The government hopes on that score it can stand as a positive example to other nations.

But the government here also admits South Africa is still struggling with its old enemy, racism. It is also facing a growing new threat, rising xenophobia. South African leaders hope delegates at the conference will help them find new and innovative solutions.