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Mideast Overshadows Other Issues at Racism Conference - 2001-09-03

Human-rights organizations are urging delegates at the World Conference on Racism to stop squabbling over the Middle East and get down to business.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dominated attention at the racism conference. International human-rights groups say the issue has pushed other critical issues aside.

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch says the plight of the Palestinians is very important. But he says some countries, including the United States, are using the dispute over the Middle East to avoid having to talk about the real issues, and to avoid taking a stand on racism around the world. "There are so many issues at this conference, [for example] refugees: 150 million people today live in countries that are not their countries of origin. Many of them have fled because of racism," he said. "Most of them suffer racism in their host countries. Those are issues we need to address. We need to address issues of caste, of the 160 million untouchables in India, who live in a daily segregation," he continued. "We need to deal with the question of indigenous people. These questions are being overshadowed by the highly politicized question of the Middle East."

Human Rights Watch and several other similar organizations are urging the conference delegates to adopt, what Mr. Brody calls a "forward-looking plan of action." He says he wants nations to make concrete commitments to deal with racism inside their own borders, commitments that can be verified by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

"I think behind the scenes, there are some governments, particularly Latin American governments, who are working with the Human Rights Commission on follow-up mechanisms, on concrete programs to combat racism," said Mr. Brody. "Unfortunately the energy of many of the big countries, like the United States, the European Union, have been elsewhere, and hopefully in the five-days that remain in this conference, they will get down to business."

Despite the groups' urging, Day Four of the conference saw yet more attention focussed on the Middle East. The leader of the Israeli delegation blasted the draft declaration to be adopted when the meeting ends Friday. Mordechai Yadid said the document contains fundamentally anti-Semitic language. "Can there be a greater irony than the fact that a conference convened to combat the scourge of racism should give rise to the most racist declaration in a major international organization since the Second World War?" he asked.

Mr. Yadid made the remarks on behalf of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who chose not to attend the conference in protest over the declaration language. Sunday, Mr. Yadid warned that the entire Israeli delegation could walk out of the conference if the language is not softened.