GENEVA – Racism. Slave reparations. Intolerance. These would be hot-button words in any assembly, but they're even more so in the fractured forum that is the United Nations.
So months before it even starts, a scheduled U.N. global conference on "Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance" set for late this summer in South Africa has devolved into a morass of finger-pointing, name-calling and hurt feelings.
Africans want the trans-Atlantic slave trade that ended nearly two centuries ago declared a "crime against humanity." They also want to be paid reparations, an issue the U.S. and Europe have said would lead them to boycott the meeting.
Arab countries want Zionism equated with racism, a position Israel and its allies are not keen on, and India wants to talk about discrimination everywhere, but not about its own caste system.
Human-rights groups who had high hopes for the conference are already getting demoralized.
"Unfortunately, there are too many signs that this conference is being hijacked by states with a narrow particular agenda," said Michael Colson, executive director of UN Watch, a monitoring group based in Geneva. "Some of the issues that mention compensation for past crimes or turning it into a focus for the Middle East will be disastrous for this conference."
The two-week meeting, set for Aug. 31-Sept. 7 in Durban, South Africa, is supposed to produce a comprehensive action plan to help the U.N. fight racism, but the four regional meetings held in preparation turned into forums for Third World attacks on the developed world.
Meeting in Dakar, Senegal in January, the African regional group demanded that the United States and European former colonial powers pay reparations for the 14 million black Africans forced into slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries. They want it declared a "crime against humanity."
But legal experts say such a declaration would amount to an admission of guilt and lead to a flurry of legal demands. So the Bush administration has said it may not attend the meeting if slavery is the dominant issue on the agenda. The U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson of Ireland, has said Europe wants the reparations issue tabled altogether.
Dr. Vincent Magombe, director of Africa Inform International, said Western nations that want to discuss racial tolerance and human rights without discussing their slave histories are hypocrites.
"They have done horrible things to us, and it is quite ironic that these very countries, these very people, are the ones that come around today trying to tell everyone about civilization and human rights," Magombe said. On the issue of the U.S. boycotting the conference, Magombe suggested the conference might be better off without the U.S.
Magombe also accused the U.S. of condemning the currently documented slave trade in Sudan and western Africa as a ploy to divert attention from its own dark history.
"The truth is the U.S. has contributed to these regimes. Sudan at one time was a very great ally to the United States in the cold war and the U.S. propped up the regimes in Sudan," Magombe said.
The U.S. is also upset by the anti-Israel sentiment that sprung out of the Asian regional conference, which includes the Far East and Mideast but not Israel. The Asian group, which met in Tehran in February, wants the U.N. to reclassify Zionism as racism, a position the U.N. abandoned in 1991. They also want previously colonial countries to compensate territories they once ruled, and declare that the globalization of the world economy is essentially a racist plot.
The Asian group refused to allow Australia and New Zealand to join its conference, nudging them into the European group with the rest of the former colonial powers. And India has attempted to have its caste-based system of social and economic discrimination removed from the conference's discussion topics altogether.
Jose Diaz, a spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Office, insists that the conference will have to include a "recognition of the effect of the wounds, the legacy of slavery." And he points to a precedent in the money paid to Holocaust survivors as impetus for the talk of slave reparations.
But Diaz also said there were more pressing and urgent current discrimination issues that the global community needed to deal with, and that the American slave trade should not take attention away from today's problems.
"There are things that should be tackled now and one of the ways is through this conference," said Diaz, listing work place discrimination, racial profiling by police, ethnic conflict in Europe and Africa, and ongoing slave trade as topics that should be the conference's primary concerns. "These issues are so important we should not deflect attention away from them."
— Fox News Correspondent Amy Kellogg contributed to this report