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UN Rights Official Upbeat on Race Conference

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson says the World Conference Against Racism is back on track despite the pullout of the United States.

Mary Robinson, who is Secretary-General of the conference, told reporters the walkout by the United States and Israel was met by "a good deal of sadness and dismay."

But she also said she is encouraged by what she called the constructive spirit of the remaining delegates, who are determined to press on toward consensus on the wording of the final declaration. "I believe we are back on course. We are steadied, and everybody knows that time is short," she said. "We have come a long and bumpy way to get here. But voices that were ignored before are being heard."

Those voices were being heard even as she spoke. Outside, a noisy group of Afro-Brazilian protesters were demanding reparations for the slave trade.

Carrying huge banners and blowing whistles, they chant, "reparations now!" Zakiya Carr represents a Sao Paulo-based organization for black women. "Brazil is in a situation where African people are being discriminated. We want reparations now. That's what we want," she said.

The day also saw a protest of indigenous people from around the world, demanding equal rights from their respective governments, and from the United Nations.

But the main event remains the Middle East conflict and the U.S. and Israeli walkout. A U.S. spokeswoman has confirmed that the U.S. consul general in Durban remains at the conference, but mainly as an observer, he is not allowed to participate in any way.

Three anonymous bomb threats were made Tuesday against the building next door to the U.S. consulate in Durban. A police spokesman said the bomb squad searched the building thoroughly and found no explosives. He insists the incident is not related to the racism conference or the U.S. consulate.

A Palestinian NGO delegate, Khader Shkirad, told reporters the U.S. attitude toward the conference has actually achieved the opposite of the Bush administration's goal. "By attempting to exclude the Palestinian issue from this conference, in fact, I would like to thank on behalf of the Palestinian caucus and on behalf of all the victims, to thank the United States for putting the Palestinian issue on the top agenda to this conference," he said.

The U.N. human rights commissioner confirmed that the entire section of the declaration dealing with the Middle East has been withdrawn, in line with a South African proposal to start from scratch. Ms. Robinson said South Africa has agreed to spearhead efforts to rewrite that section in an effort to find consensus. "The text that is in there having been withdrawn, it may not be possible to replace with other text," she said. "But I am sure the delegates will want to have text on a whole range of issues that are encompassed in that."

Ms. Robinson said it is still possible to create a conference declaration that will be what she called a ringing endorsement of respect for human dignity. But she said the thorniest questions are not likely to be resolved until the last minute Friday, if at all.