US, Israel Pull Out of Racism Conference

Sept. 3, 2001 -- The United States and Israel pulled out of a global conference designed to address prejudice, racism and resentment saying the event has only exacerbated the very things it was meant to eradicate.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a statement calling American diplomats home four days before the conference was scheduled to end, saying that "you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language."

The U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa has been battling heated arguments over Israel and tensions in the Middle East as well as reparations for the ills and legacy of slavery.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres also announced that his country's diplomats would pull out of the conference today, saying that Israel had been unfairly labeled as a colonialist nation by the members of the conference.

"I have taken this decision with regret, because of the importance of the fight against racism and the contribution that the conference could have made to it," Powell's statement said. "But, following discussions by our team in Durban and others who are working for a successful conference, I am convinced that will not be possible."

The sticking point was a draft resolution that was to be presented to the U.N. high commissioner for human rights that was sharply critical of Israel.

"I know that you do not combat racism by conferences containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of 'Zionism equals racism'; or supports the idea that we have made too much of the holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world, Israel, for censure and abuse," Powell said.

Peres accused the Arab League of focusing its efforts on singling out Israel for attack, laying all the blame for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on its shoulders.

"The Arab League, all of it, has come out against peace," Peres said at a news conference today. "The Durban conference is a farce."

Compromise Efforts Fail

Norway and Canada attempted to mediate a compromise between the Arab states and Israel on the conference's draft declaration and the United States had been part of those talks.

Congressman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the leader of the U.S. delegation had recommended that the Americans abandon the effort to change the wording, saying that a proposed compromise in the wording was rejected.

"There should be no country singled out for special opprobrium," he said. Lantos said that the United States embraced a compromise offered by Norway to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli controversy that would have avoided singling out a single country.

"We were ready to have the single issue of the Israelis and the Palestinians dealt with in a statement, but in a fair balanced and objective fashion," Lantos added.

Norwegian diplomats became involved after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the participants in the conference to strike a compromise that would allow all the parties involved to sign off on the resolution.

‘We Have No Response’

Earlier today, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said that only a balanced declaration on the Middle East, acceptable to everybody, would be taken seriously at the U.N. conference on racism.

Moussa said Arab states were seriously working toward compromise, but he said that it was up to each state to decide whether they wanted to attend or not.

After the United States and Israel announced they were leaving, though, Moussa said the resolution would not be changed.

"We have no response; it is a sovereign decision, whoever wants to come should come, whoever wants to go out should go out," he said.

Israeli delegates had threatened to leave the conference Sunday in protest over the final declaration from the forum.

There had been heated debate among the non-governmental organizations (NGO) attending the forum over the wording of the resolution, which is to be presented to the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

U.S. Commitment Questioned

Some Jewish and Christian groups walked out on Sunday when it became clear that paragraphs in the resolution would condemn Israel for genocide against Palestinians.

The United States had been criticized from the start, with some groups saying that since Powell himself did not attend, it was clear that America did not take the meeting seriously.

"Well, first of all America was never, I don't think they were ever committed to coming to the conference," said Deborah Levi, a member of the South African NGO Durban 400. "So we believe that no matter whether they are here or not they still must begin to impact change and also impact the conditions that we are talking about dealing with.

"We will deal with it, whether they are here or not. If they don't deal with it today they will have to deal with it tomorrow, if they don't deal with it tomorrow they will have to deal with it a few months later. The point is we expect America to deal with these issues, there are no ifs and buts about it."

ABCNEWS' Richard Gizbert contributed to this report.