'They Missed A Golden Opportunity'

The United Nations' World Conference Against Racism was supposed to be a landmark event in the global struggle against discrimination. Mary Robinson, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights, hoped it would provide an "historic breakthrough" and a document that would be "a sort of Magna Carta in the fight against racism."

Instead, the eight-day conference-which began today in the South African port city of Durban-is mired in controversy over Arab charges of Israeli racism against Palestinians and African demands for slavery reparations. Then there are the disputes over India's caste system, China's rule in Tibet and Europe's treatment of Gypsy communities-all of which could promote intolerance instead of ameliorating it.

One of the conference's hottest issues: the decision that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell skip the conference because of what the Bush administration considers offensive language about Israel in preparatory conference texts. While conference organizers removed language equating Zionism with racism, Washington continued to object to draft texts singling out Israel as a "discriminatory" state. And although the State Department did eventually dispatch a midlevel team to Durban, it's status remained unclear. "We use the word 'attending,' not 'participating,' a State Department spokesman told NEWSWEEK Friday.

Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies-a Washington think tank specializing in international and African-American affairs-spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz about the possible repercussions of the U.S. decision. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Should Colin Powell have gone to the conference?

Eddie N. Williams: This nation, which is the crucible of modern democracy, really ought to be in every forum speaking out against racism and discrimination. We're missing a golden opportunity to do so.

The U.S. boycotted two other U.N. conferences on racism in 1978 and 1983. Is anything different this time around?

I think we missed a wonderful opportunity then, as well.... We know that the agenda [of the Durban conference] is not acceptable to the administration, [but] the position of the administration is that the agenda ought to be "my way or the highway." I don't think that's in the best interests of the United States. We have seen a lot of this independence, or rugged individualism, or whatever one wants to call it, with respect to the Kyoto accords [on global warming], we've seen it with respect to missile deployment. While we do have the power and the prestige to push our positions, eventually [this approach] will catch up with us as we lose respect, lose the support of some people who could be valuable allies to us.

Critics of the Bush administration decision say that the U.S. failure to attend is depriving it of an opportunity to set global agendas. Do you share that view?

I do. That's what I meant by "my way or the highway." You're just neglecting other views, and you're neglecting an opportunity to expose your own views to democratic dialogue.

Earlier this year, the U.S. was voted off the United Nations' Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board. There's also Europe's unhappiness with President Bush's stand on global warming. Does this signal a new era of U.S. isolation?

I'm not sure the U.S. is isolated. I think there are some countries that are beginning to have some concerns, but we're only looking at one aspect of international relationships here. Obviously communications and dialogue continues on many, many other fronts. It certainly does not help for the nation that represents itself as the crucible of modern democracy to be shut out or to remove itself from the critical discussions of our time. It does not help that we're conspicuously on the minority side or standing alone against the rest of the international community.

What do you hope to see come out of this conference?

I would like to see some statement of principles, hopes and aspirations.... One thing that President Bill Clinton tried to do in this country [was] to get nations and the world focusing on racism, not just as an occasional issue, and not just when crises flare up, but as an ongoing dialogue. There's just so much bigotry and misunderstanding in the world, and differences among peoples, that it can never be too much to continue to share views on culture and attitudes and on our basic humanity. Even the U.S. found with respect to racial discrimination [that] you cannot mandate it in a democratic society. You have to educate people and give them some incentive to want to improve. Our destinies are interlinked and intertwined.

The U.S. is not alone in not sending its top officials to the conference. Britain and Canada, for example, sent only junior ministers, and there are few big political names from Asia and Europe. At the same time, many developing countries are represented by their heads of state. Won't this underscore the North-South divide rather than promote tolerance and understanding?

Britain and Canada are probably following the U.S. lead in order to maintain their relationship. If the U.S. had done differently, I think we would have seen a different response there. But I think in all instances they're missing a wonderful opportunity, and in a sense, implying "Hey, we're guilty." While everybody knows about racism and colonialism, these countries profess that's behind them. But this is a forum where one can articulate that it is behind you, that you are doing things differently and that here's an agenda for the rest of the world to follow. It's a wonderful opportunity to be proactive and agenda-setting and not reacting and being defensive.

In the end, the U.S. did send what the State Department describes as a team rather than a delegation. Will that soothe feelings?

I think there is no substitute for the secretary of State, certainly a person of Colin Powell's stature.

The Bush administration had two objections to the conference agenda: the singling out of Israel and the question of reparations for slavery. Which tipped the balance on the administration's decision?

I happen not to believe the two go together. I think they're quite different issues. Given the nature of my organization, we talked most about the issue of slavery. In terms of reparations, that is not a new agenda. How it gets debated in this country, and how it gets debated in a world forum, is a legitimate issue. Whether one is for or against it, we use those kinds of forums to test the vitality of one's position. There are debates within the African-American community about the viability of reparations. At one time, some argued that only radical African-Americans are supporting that notion. That is no longer the truth.

Ironically, then, has the debate over the conference given the reparations issue a higher profile in the U.S. It is being pushed more and more into the mainstream agenda. My sense is that it's not something that's going to be dealt with overnight ... but you don't get there unless you have an open debate.

What about those who argue that these U.N. conferences are a waste of time, a bunch of talking heads?

I don't think the exchange of information at any time at any level is a waste of time. It brings people together. It can lead not just to effective exchanges of views but sometimes to effective compromises. I think that was what was envisioned in creating the U.N. in the first place.