Sending a strong signal to the international community, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is boycotting the U.N. World Conference Against Racism — which begins this week — because of an anti-Israel atmosphere.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell will not attend the conference in Durban, South Africa, because proposed resolutions for the conference unfairly criticize Israel — and the meeting itself will provide a forum for speakers to single out Israel repeatedly.
Washington is believed to be considering whether to send a very low-level delegation, like U.S. personnel from the embassy in South Africa, to serve as observers at the conference.
“There was a whole series of references to one particular government, to one particular country, and to its policies as being racist,” Boucher said Monday. “That’s what we object to.”
Following the U.S. lead, Canada announced Tuesday it was reconsidering whether to send a Cabinet representative.
Also Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the American decision.
“No country is immune from racism and xenophobia,” Annan said during a trip to Austria. “I hope the U.S. will participate and that they will come and sit with other governments to move the process forward.”
Meanwhile, at least one Arab delegate at the Durban conference seemed to celebrate the U.S. absence.
“It’s a clear political message that the Americans are insisting to show they are not on the side of human rights defenders,” Shaqi Issa, a spokesman for the Arab nongovernmental bloc, told Reuters. “It will make the conference easier. Usually the Americans are the obstacle to a good agreement on human rights.”
Powell had expressed his interest in attending the conference, which begins Friday, and was being encouraged to do so by black and civil rights groups. Powell also had spoken with Annan several times over the weekend about the conference.
But U.S. efforts failed to remove anti-Israel statements from the conference agenda, prompting Powell to opt out of the meeting.
Taking their cue from Washington’s actions, Israel and American Jewish groups also said they would boycott the conference or drastically reduce their presence.
Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, has been following the issue for two years. Hadassah sent a delegation to Durban, but by midweek was considering walking out.
On the ground in Durban this week, the atmosphere was already hostile to Israel and its supporters.
Some delegates from nongovernmental organizations milled about in T-shirts that read, for example, “Israel = Occupation = Apartheid.”
Posters around the convention hall featured the image of a Palestinian boy killed in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire in the first few weeks of violence last fall.
And U.N. Watch, a human rights group run by the American Jewish Committee, was pressing conference organizers to kick out an Arab organization for reportedly circulating an anti-Semitic pamphlet.
U.N. Watch said the pamphlet was distributed by an organization calling itself the Arab Lawyers Union and depicts Jews with fangs dripping with blood and wearing helmets inscribed with Nazi swastikas.
“The countries of the world are making a decision right now to allow the Arab states and the Palestinians to hijack the conference and cynically manipulate the human condition to achieve narrow political victories,” said Amy Goldstein, Hadassah’s director of Israel, Zionist and international affairs.
“The Jewish people have a lot to say on the issue of racism, but unfortunately they’re preventing Jewish civil society from speaking out by forcing us to defend our existence.”
Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said that after Washington’s announcement, the WJC, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel decided to boycott the Durban conference.
“There’s very little to hope for, given the wording of the declaration and the hopelessness of ‘friendly countries’ not supporting us,” Singer said.
“We want people to know that those who have put out this statement have undercut international organizations and the cause for human rights. We shall continue to support both international organizations and human rights, but not through this machinery.”
The State Department decision was foreshadowed last Friday when President Bush told reporters that he did not want to send a delegation of any kind to Durban unless the language on the agenda was changed substantively.
“We have made it very clear, through Colin Powell’s office, that we will have no representative there so long as they pick on Israel, so long as they continue to say Zionism is racism,” Bush said in a news conference in Texas. “If they use the forum as a way to isolate our friend and strong ally, we will not participate.”
The United States also is concerned about demands for slave trade reparations, but Boucher said the major sticking point was the language relating to Jews and Israel. Some proposals for the conference including writing the Holocaust with a small h — thereby minimizing its uniqueness — and criticizing the supposed “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine.”
Arab and Muslim states inserted the anti-Israeli rhetoric during preparatory conferences in which countries submitted referenda for debate. American Jewish groups, who will attend the conference as nongovernmental organizations, worked with the United State and Israel to remove the language, to no avail.
The American Jewish community has had mixed views on whether Powell or a lower-level American delegation should go to Durban, but many felt Powell sent a strong message to the international community by deciding to boycott.
“It shows the Bush administration’s commitment to not allowing those who are opposed to peace to use this conference for their anti-Israel agenda,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“That message is ultimately more important than coming here and trying to get the conference back on track,” said Michael Salberg, a national commissioner for the Anti-Defamation League who is in Durban preparing for the summit.
Jason Isaacson, director of governmental and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said Powell’s presence at the conference would have been significant because he is “emblematic of the struggle and the prospects of overcoming the hurdles of racism.”
“He would have been a fitting representative of the United States at the conference, and the fact that those who are hijacking the conference have cost it the stature that would have come from his participation is significant,” Isaacson said. “It has got to send a message to the rest of the world.”
B’nai B’rith International President Richard Heideman called on the State Department last week to send the “most experienced delegation possible” to Durban. But he said Monday that Powell’s decision balanced the need for experienced leadership with the need to distance the United States from the inflammatory statements.
“Sending Secretary Powell dignifies the conference,” Heideman said. “By refusing to send Powell, the statement is being made very clear that the United States disapproves of the language of the conference and disapproves of the environment of hate that is surrounding the conference.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.