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US NGOs Disappointed at Official Delegation Withdrawal at Racism Conference - 2001-09-05

Activists in Durban, South Africa continued their protests Tuesday over the United States' withdrawal from the World Conference Against Racism. Leaders of American non-governmental organizations, NGOs, are trying to keep the conference on track despite losing their official delegation.

Angry protests continued outside the International Convention Center in Durban, South Africa a day after the U.S. and Israel said they were withdrawing from the World Conference Against Racism. Both countries said they objected to anti-Israeli and "racist" language in the draft documents of the conference.

Leaders of American NGOs say they are not entirely surprised by the U.S. decision. They say American officials displayed "tunnel vision" on the Israel question, and that has severely damaged an important forum.

Michael Posner is the Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. He feels the U.S. has failed to take leadership in the conference and succeeded mainly in diverting attention from critical issues. "There's lots of other things going on here that aren't getting the attention they deserve," he says. "There [are] all kinds of questions about criminal justice and refugees and the Dalits in India and indigenous populations. And I think the United States, unfortunately, focussed so much on the Middle East issues that it took attention away from other issues that deserve at least as much and I think more attention."

American NGOs came to Durban representing a wide range of specific issues, from reparations for slavery to Asian immigrant rights. But despite widely differing opinions, U.S. NGOs in Durban seem united by their disappointment in the U.S. decision.

The U.S. NGO coordinating committee was established last year to help American activists stay organized. They had planned a meeting with the U.S. delegation just as news of the withdrawal broke on Monday. Malika Dutt runs an NGO in New York and is a member of the coordinating committee. She notes activists hoped for "positive leadership" from the U.S. on human rights issues, but found what she calls "immaturity." "The U.S. government," she says, "has been acting in an extremely immature fashion around its participation to the race conference for several months now. We're going, we're not going; we may go, we may not go; we'll go but we'll send a low level delegation; no, no, no we'll send [Secretary of State] Colin Powell."

Ms. Dutt feels that U.S. acceptance of the conference documents could help activists later on, but that without the U.S. in Durban, work may proceed better. "U.S. NGOs feel like with them gone perhaps the conference can get on with the business of really addressing racial justice in all of its manifestations around the world, including the United States," she says.

The generally accepted belief among U.S. activists at the Durban conference is that the departure of the U.S. and Israeli delegations has distracted from work on documents intended to direct a global fight against racism for years to come. Vernelia Randall, an American law professor, has been involved with the conference process from the beginning. "This document has to serve the basis for forcing governments to move forward on racial issues," she says. "Those issues involve a lot of different groups, a lot of different people with a lot of different problems."

Ms. Randall fears that many other issues will be ignored as activists protest America's departure. The U.S. says it will retain a single observer at the conference. For Malika Dutt, the new links forged between a wide range of NGOs will make it more difficult, as she puts it, "for governments to keep the people out of global discussions." She adds, "we're not going to go back on the demands we're making."