U.S. Cautions It May Boycott Racism Conference

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Seats for United States representatives at next month’s United Nations World Conference on Racism may be vacant if U.N. organizers plan to keep the topics of reparations for African slavery and a denouncement of Zionism on the agenda.

State Department officials are expected to meet with several foreign ambassadors in Washington Friday to discuss the agenda items. The eight-day conference is expected to begin on Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa.

The Bush administration has voiced displeasure over an agenda that includes a proposal to make secure monetary reparation payments from countries that participated in the slave trade during the 18th and early 19th centuries — a measure supported by some African-American political organizations here in the U.S.

The administration also questions a proposal to resurrect a 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism — the movement towards and subsequent support of a Jewish state in former Palestine — with racism against Arabs. That resolution was repealed 10 years ago, but the proposal has resurfaced several times in recent years.

White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said Friday that the U.S. "is fully engaged and ready to participate" in the conference but not if critical issues of the day are bogged down in dubious questions of alleged racism by supporters of Zionism and what he described as a "tangled and complicated issue that's 200 years old," referring to the question of reparations.

And a State Department spokesman said "we want this to be a forward-looking conference and some of the language that some of the delegates are looking to introduce would focus on the past and would not be productive. These are views that we do not share alone. Racism remains a problem in the world that we want to deal with, but we want to look forward and deal with present-day problems."

Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and top conference organizer, has already had three meetings with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. But the dispute over the agenda items has yet to be resolved, prompting Friday’s meeting among a five-member State Department team and several ambassadors today.

According to press reports on Friday, Robinson had already warned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that an Arab attempt to demonize Israel could derail the conference. Israel, which was established in 1948 with United States support, is today locked in deadly conflict with Palestinians.

And hearings are expected to begin in a House subcommittee soon over the controversial proposal to transfer millions of tax dollars to American blacks to serve as reparations payments for slavery.

The conference represents "an important opportunity to address these issues of race," said Hilary Shelton of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It’s something that many of us have been actively engaged in and preparing for."

But Roger Pilon, vice president of legal affairs for the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, says the administration must stand behind its decision.

"The Clinton administration went to incredible extremes to involve us in all kinds of multilateral affairs" that have come close to "compromising national sovereignty," he told Fox News. "Bush has promised to take a fresh look at this and that’s what he’s doing."

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League urged foreign ministers of all U.N. member nations last week to reject the efforts of Arab delegations' "anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric."

"It is tragic that some nations would seek to utilize a forum which should embrace tolerance to advance an agenda of hatred and misunderstanding," the group said in a July 18 statement. They also sent a letter to President Bush sharing this sentiment.

The State department spokesman said there is a preparatory meeting on July 30 for the conference. The department is sending delegates and will decide from there whether the U.S. plays a role.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.