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US, Israel Withdraw from Racism Conference - 2001-09-04

The United States and Israel have walked out of the World Conference Against Racism in protest over anti-Israeli rhetoric in the conference declaration. The European Union and South Africa launched a major effort to draft an entirely new text they hope will present an acceptable compromise.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says he decided "with regret" to withdraw his delegation from the conference. But, in a statement issued in Washington, Mr. Powell says you do not combat racism through conferences that "produce declarations containing hateful language."

In response to the U.S. withdrawal, the European Union backed a South African proposal to scrap the existing language on the Middle East and start from scratch. Delegates began meeting late Monday to draft new wording for the text.

A member of the U.S. delegation says the decision to walk out came after the rejection of a Norwegian proposal on wording for the conference declaration. Congressman Tom Lantos says Arab nations were unwilling to compromise, and the document still singles out Israel for criticism. "Those who have made it their goal to hijack the conference for their propaganda purposes appear have shown in the course of the day a degree of rigidity and unwillingness to compromise in any reasonable sense," says Mr. Lantos.

Mr. Lantos also says the outcome has vindicated the decision to keep Mr. Powell at home and send a lower-level delegation to Durban.

In Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the conference has become "a farce." The legal advisor to the Israeli delegation in Durban, Alan Baker, told reporters the aims of the conference have been perverted, and the fight against racism has been gravely undermined. "We merely wish to add that no rational arguments have carried any weight with the Arab countries and the Palestinians, who have been determined to attack us from the very beginning," Mr. Baker says. "Not only have we been unjustly singled out, but totally false accusations and lies unrelated to the purpose of the conference have been flung at us. We have been forced to the conclusion that there is no point or purpose to our being here."

In the past, Canada and the European Union have also objected to the anti-Israeli language contained in the conference declaration. But both announced they will stay at the conference.

The United Nations has expressed its disappointment at the withdrawal of the United States and Israel. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged all remaining countries to "stay the course." He said the conference cannot afford other defections.

The racism conference spokeswoman Susan Markham read a statement on behalf of U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson. "I truly regret the decision of the United States to leave the conference," she said. "Nevertheless, I believe that the journey we began must continue until the end of the conference with a view to achieving a successful outcome. We must persist in our endeavors. The victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance demand this of us."

The U.S. and Israeli withdrawal was immediately welcomed by several prominent Jewish groups, which said they too will walk out of the conference. But the host country, South Africa, said it regretted the decision. South African spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa called it an error of judgement.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying the United States is squandering a unique opportunity to stand against intolerance and take pride in its own successes.

There has been swift and negative reaction from some Americans in Durban. U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson strongly condemned the decision to pull out of the conference. He said the United States has missed an opportunity, and is using the Middle East issue to avoid having to talk about other sensitive matters, including reparations for slavery.