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Racism Conference Ends

The World Conference Against Racism has ended after a tense week of debate over how it would address the Middle East and slavery.

As the conference drew to a close after nine contentious days, United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson urged delegates to look forward and follow up on the commitments they made in adopting the conference declaration and program of action. "The main message I would like to leave you with is that Durban must be a beginning, and not an end," she said. "There must be follow-up. The documents we have agreed here will be meaningless unless governments act on them."

It was not easy for the delegates to adopt those provisions.

The conference president, South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, had personally struggled for days to bring the various sides to consensus. They had been battling over language in the documents regarding slavery and the Middle East.

Ms. Dlamini-Zuma compared the process to childbirth. She explained to the men in the room that the pain involved is severe. "But what sustains women through the pain is the knowledge that at the end of the pain, there is a beautiful precious child that is going to be born," she said.

That child is the conference declaration and program of action. She urged delegates to be proud of what they have achieved - and not to let the documents gather dust. "But for this [childbirth] analogy to be true, what we have achieved here, we have to nurture, we have to look after, we have to make sure it grows," she said. "That's what you do to a precious child after childbirth."

Ms. Zuma and Ms. Robinson paint the racism conference as a success. But after more than a week of battling over the two main issues some are questioning whether that is true.

Advocates say the debate on the Middle East and slavery distracted attention away from their issues. One groups says it allowed nations to slip what they consider racist and discriminatory language into the documents regarding indigenous peoples. Another told VOA the conference had undermined efforts to fight the phenomenon known as environmental racism, when the poor and disadvantaged bear the brunt of environmental contamination.

The U.S.-based Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights issues a statement condemning what it calls the abdication of leadership at the conference by the nations that participated. The groups says governments lacked the political will to address racism seriously.

The group also says, given the difficulty and sensitivity of the issues being discussed here, many of the problems that accompanied the conference were predictable. But in the broader view, the Lawyers' Committee says the conference "succeeded in putting the problems of racism and racial discrimination more squarely on the international agenda." And, they say, "it underscores the need to find a common language... for combating racism... worldwide."