Silver Linings From A Summit

Even Nelson Mandela was frustrated. The man who calmly outwaited apartheid, who endured 27 years imprisoned on Robben Island, found himself all but biting his nails as he watched reports of the acrimony arising from the U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa. "When I heard... the American delegation had pulled out, I was on the point of picking up the phone and speaking to President Bush," said Mandela, who pronounced himself "worried about the attitude of the United States" and "sorry" that good will had not

prevailed. Only good manners--and the desire to defer to his successor--restrained him. "It's not good to intervene if you have not been asked to do so," said Mandela, former president of South Africa, looking healthy (if thin), despite under-going treatment for prostate cancer, as he welcomed visitors to his immaculate yet modest home just outside Johannesburg.

Mandela made it clear to his visitors--the Rev. Jesse Jackson, his wife, Jackie, and two American journalists--that the impulse to intervene had passed quickly, that getting involved in such complicated and messy business as the U.N. conference was "not a task for pensioners." But, for a brief and poignant moment, Jackson appealed to the international icon of reconciliation to put aside his retiring ways. "Global conscience does not seek permission, it seeks opportunities," the preacher gently lectured the onetime president. In retrospect, Jackson was glad Mandela steered clear. Getting him involved, Jackson said, would have been a waste of precious prestige; but the initial impulse, the wish for a revered and wise old hand to rescue the conference from the participants' worse inclinations, was more than understandable.

Last week, as the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance lurched to a close, it was painfully clear that many participants had fallen victim to the very things they so loudly denounced: intransigence, intolerance and incivility. And in the process, the public image of civil society (as the nonprofit, nongovernment world likes to call itself) suffered a major blow.

How did a meeting fueled by high hope and idealism come to such a sorry pass? Part of the reason lies in the difficulty of the task. Getting 160-plus nations to acknowledge and correct a million different kinds of homegrown prejudice is not an easy assignment. But even allowing for the difficulty of its mission, the world conference was a stunning disappointment--in large measure because some key players couldn't see beyond their own parochial interests, and the conference process allowed them to dominate the proceedings. Extremists hijacked the "NGO forum" and put out a document equating Zionism with apartheid, racism and fascism. Alarmed that they were being made to seem a band of hateful, uncompromising ideologues, groups scrambled to distance themselves from the noxious portions of the declaration.

The U.S. pullout left many people either bewildered or fuming. Jackson, among others, suggested that the Bush administration was playing cynical politics, using the prospect of anti-Israel language as a pretext to avoid discussing race. Even many delegates friendly to the United States privately suggested that the U.S. withdrawal was a mistake.

But even though the conference was something of a flop, it was not a total failure. In Brazil, where it has received huge media coverage, it has renewed debate on the large educational and income disparities in Brazilian society, and has given hope to Afro-Brazilian activists that their quest for equality may be taken seriously. It has prompted European countries to look more closely at discrimination against various groups (particularly the Roma, or Gypsies). It sparked, for better or worse, a global discussion on reparations for slavery and colonialism. And it gave a forum--in the form of a daily program, broadcast throughout South Africa and distributed elsewhere--to members of various marginalized groups (Kurds in Turkey, slaves in Niger, so-called untouchables in India, indigenous people in Australia). And, not insignificantly, it allowed delegates to serve up lofty language pledging to build a better world. Maddeningly vague as that language is, the words matter. For they offer the possibility that somehow--in international tribunals, in the court of world opinion--nations (especially those naturally disinclined) will be held accountable for protecting those most easily abused. In light of the outsize expectations this world conference generated in certain quarters, that may not seem like much of an accomplishment. But given how difficult even that was to achieve, it should give the conference conveners something to savor--once the sour tastes of conflict and controversy finally begin to fade.