UNITED NATIONS – Slavery reparations and the Mideast conflict are the hottest issues for this week's U.N. racism conference. But there are plenty of other disputes — from affirmative action and sexual orientation to hate speech and the death penalty — on a slow boil just beneath.
The scope and depth of the unresolved issues reflects the sprawling subject: Racism plagues virtually every country and affects almost all aspects of life. Its roots dig into historical injustices, and there are major differences on how it can be tackled.
Over the past decade, the United Nations has held conferences on several tough worldwide issues — human rights, population growth and women's equality, to name a few. The racism conference doesn't start until Friday, but it already ranks among the most contentious because of the angry confrontations it has generated.
When delegates from over 150 countries gather in the South African port city of Durban, they will face a mammoth task — reaching consensus on a lengthy declaration and an even longer program of action to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance.
More than half the declaration and about 15 percent of the action plan remain in dispute. Large chunks of the rest of the documents have only been approved by a small negotiating group.
The United States is threatening to boycott the conference — or block consensus if it attends — unless anti-Israel and anti-Zionist language is eliminated from the documents. Israel is also considering staying away. Secretary of State Colin Powell has virtually ruled out participating and it is still unclear whether the United States will be represented at a lower level, an administration official said Sunday night.
Although Arab and Muslim states, under pressure, abandoned efforts to revive a U.N. resolution repealed in 1991 that equated racism with Zionism — the movement that led to the founding of the Jewish state — language to that effect still exists in the draft document.
One paragraph being debated would refer to racist movements including "the Zionist movement which is based on racial superiority."
Felice Gaer of the American Jewish Committee called that statement the most offensive. "It revives the anti-Semitic canard of `the chosen people' at the same time as it undermines the right of Israel to exist by claiming that the founding philosophy itself is racist," she said.
On the issue of slavery, the United States and the Europeans are at odds with African nations and many advocacy groups, including African-American organizations. The former colonial powers and slave-trading nations fear that apologizing for colonialism and slavery, or acknowledging either was a crime, could lead to huge compensation claims.
Contested language in the current draft declaration calls for an apology as a first step toward reparations, compensation for victims and contributions to a special development fund from states, companies and individuals "who benefited materially from these practices."
Some human rights activists and minority groups are concerned that other important issues are being kept in the shadows by the attention being given reparations and the Mideast.
Among the other sticking points, India wants to rid the agenda of language opposing discrimination based on "work" and "descent" because it doesn't want to discuss the plight of the Dalits, or "untouchables," on the lowest rungs of India's centuries-old caste hierarchy.
References to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation have been contested by Muslim states, while the U.S. administration has remained silent on the issue.
Also in dispute are calls for affirmative action programs for victims of racism and racial discrimination "to rectify their disadvantaged position in society and the historical wrongs committed against them."
On the issue of the media and the Internet, Western nations want to balance freedom of expression with limits on hate speech that can be linked to violent acts. But Cuba, China and some Mideast nations are attempting to use the control of hate speech to further clamp down on the free flow of information, Gaer said.
Negotiators are still arguing over a paragraph that calls on countries with capital punishment to halt executions while they investigate any possible slant against specific racial groups.
Human rights groups tried to get strong language against discriminatory measures that bar millions of people from getting citizenship, but they failed because many countries argue that each has the right to set its conditions for citizenship.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said neither conference document calls for measures to effectively address discrimination in the justice system.
Human Rights Watch also said it plans to lobby in Durban to restore a reference to the 1951 U.N. convention on the protection of refugees, which recognizes that racism and discrimination on grounds of race, nationality, or religion are grounds for being recognized as a refugee.
Amnesty International will be campaigning for improved language on the rights of asylum seekers and migrants.