JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – African officials said Tuesday the fight against racism was the real loser following the U.S. decision not to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to a major U.N. racism conference that starts this week.
Across the continent, government officials and newspaper editorials voiced disappointment at the Bush administration's decision not to send a high-level delegation to the international gathering, which is scheduled to start to begin Friday in Durban, South Africa.
"It is a pity. I think this question of racism is such an important question, because no country, not even the United States, has been able to deal effectively with and eradicate racism," said South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. "The United States needs this conference just as much as anybody else."
Nigerian Foreign Minister Dubin Onyia said the absence of the United States would be felt deeply if it decides to boycott the meeting.
"Decisions taken at the conference will be like a toothless bulldog if America is not there," Onyia said.
The Bush administration is still considering whether to send a low-level delegation to the conference after announcing Monday that Powell — a former U.S. military chief who was known worldwide before he became the first black secretary of state — would not attend.
The State Department said the decision was made in protest against Arab-backed "offensive language" in draft conference documents that accused Israel of implementing racist policies against Palestinians.
The United States has also been reluctant to attend because of demands by African countries for an apology and reparations for slavery.
Observers in Africa said an absence of senior U.S. officials at the conference would signal a lack of interest in combatting racism.
"A high-level delegation would have signaled the United States' commitment to the global family of nations and to working things out together," said Paul Graham, director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "The American action is perceived as proof that the U.S. is not interested in racism and poverty."
Planning of the conference has been overshadowed in part by a push by Arab states to link Zionism — the movement that led to the founding of Israel — with racism.
For 16 years, the United Nations had a resolution on the books that equated Zionism with racism. It was repealed in 1991.
The United States sat out the last two U.N. racism conferences, in 1978 and 1983, because it felt the gatherings were a forum for anti-Semitism.
In Kenya, Gitau Warigi, a columnist for the Sunday Nation newspaper, wrote he was taken aback by what he called Israel's influence over the United States.
"What is this amazing hold that Israel has on United States policy that such a vital issue as the fight against racism can be reduced to a spat over a country the U.S. treats like a spoiled baby?"
But for some, a no-show by the Americans was of little importance.
"It will not make any difference to the outcome," said South Africa's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa. "We are not organizing an American conference. We are organizing a United Nations conference."