Moral Musical Chairs at the Racism Conference

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United Nations Secretary-general Kofi Annan addresses human rights groups

A global forum on racism and its remedies was never going to be a buy-the-world-a-Coke lovefest, but it's in danger of descending into a deeply weird Tower of Babel experience. Even the Middle East conflict, which has come to dominate the spotlight at the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, produces its own strangely dissonant images: Hasidic Jews from New York bearing placards proclaiming that "Zionism equals Anti-Semitism," or Mary Robinson, the U.N.'s Irish Catholic human rights commissioner proclaiming that when she sees vicious anti-Semitic slurs, "I am a Jew." (Sorry, Mary. It's not like being a "Berliner" — the rabbis are pretty protective over their criteria.) Outside, meanwhile, a group of pro- and anti-Israel activists trade '60s peace-and-love anthems: "Give Peace a Chance," sing the Zionists; "We Shall Overcome," counter the Palestinians.

As sharp and graphic as the differences over the Middle East may be, they're hardly the only show in town. Everyone from Latinos to Gypsies is pressing their own legitimate grievances, and even the generic anti-globalization protestors are showing up. Screaming ironies abound: Here you'll find Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, author of a cynical pogrom to drive white farmers off the land, on "Landlessness as Racism."

For every issue raised, there's a government trying to duck it. India's Dalits, for example, who languish on the bottom rung of that country's archaic caste system, have come to Durban to demand redress. No, the Indian government counters, caste can't even be discussed at the conference — because caste is a socially, rather than racially, defined system of exclusion.

India's response is hardly atypical. Most governments have a skeleton or three in their own closets, and the standard reaction is to strenuously deflect attention onto their neighbor's closet in a game of moral musical chairs. (A comprehensive discussion on slavery, for example, may require mention of the fact that most of the slaves captured on Africa's east coast went not to the New World, but to Arab countries, but the art of the deal here is to throw your weight behind a popular cause in exchange for having your own sins passed over.)

The wealthier nations don't need to bother with such chicanery — they can simply rely on their power to restrict the agenda of the conference, and their participation in it. The Americans and some other Western nations may have focused their reservations on the Israel issue, but there's plenty else on the agenda that has them worried. In a perverse way, the anti-Zionist camp has given the U.S. a pretext for pulling Secretary of State Colin Powell from a conference that will also focus extensively on the legacy of slavery.

On that score, the senior British delegate, Lady Amos, says most European governments are happy to condemn modern slavery as a "crime against humanity," but they refuse to do the same for the historic slave trade, because that would have "legal implications." (In other words, slavery is a crime for which the likes of Sudan will be held liable, but that standard won't apply for Britain, France or the United States.) Still, she offers by way of consolation, that Britain and the Europeans would be happy to use "very strong wording" to denounce the historic slave trade, even going as far to use the term "regret."

The extent of double talk and hedging is more than a little remarkable — for an event that has no teeth, the WCAR is sure causing a lot of discomfort. The U.S. is not attending, of course. Or is it? Well, it's pulled Colin Powell, but the Administration is sending a delegation headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael E. Southwick. His delegation is not attending as such; they're showing up to "work the halls" against anti-Israel language. But they have to register as delegates in order to gain access. If they fail to protect Israel from being "picked on," they'll leave early, just so nobody gets the impression they'd actually "attended."

The vitriol on the Zionism issue may be instructive of the conference's faults, because it's essentially a debate in which each side seeks to minimize or eliminate the other's claims to legitimacy. Israel and its supporters refuse to even contemplate a comparison between the Palestinian plight in the West Bank and Gaza and the condition of black South Africans under apartheid. And the Palestinians and their supporters are determined to diminish the significance of the Holocaust. Plainly, if they'd simply listen to each other, they may have a better idea of how why their peace efforts thus far have failed. But this conference is less about dialogue than about the race to place one's grievances on the record, preferably at the expense of one's adversaries.

In the end, though, the debate is shaped by the old divides of North and South. It's easy for Westerners to be smug and self-satisfied, having convinced themselves that they've eliminated racism. But for the most part, the powerful industrialized nations have not been racism's victims, but its perpetrators. And as easy as it is to beat up on India for denying caste oppression or the Sudan for its continued slavery, the poppycock of Britain's "slavery is a crime now that we're no longer practicing it; it was simply regrettable when we were doing it" reflects the arrogance of power — the West sets the agenda of what is admissible, simply because it can. So don't expect that after eight days of talking, the delegates are going to be holding hands while Kofi Annan leads them in 'Kumbaya.'