Racism Conference on the Rocks

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Israel walked out from the World Conference Against Racism

There's a lesson in this somewhere, a parable about how the Middle East conflict has a way of metastasizing. The World Conference on Racism looked set for disaster Tuesday despite a last-gasp scramble by South African officials to find compromise language on the Middle East. Passages in the conference's draft declaration singling out Israel and Zionism for condemnation prompted the U.S. and Israel to walk out of the U.N.-sponsored event in Durban, South Africa on Monday — a move which was, in turn, harshly criticized by both friend and foe. While European nations share Washington's concern over singling out Israel at a conference intended to tackle the global legacy of racism, they're staying in Durban, at least for now, to try and reshape the outcome over the next four days.

And while it's the breakdown over the Middle East that has captured the headlines, the conference may be equally imperiled by the dispute over whether and how Western nations ought to take responsibility for the pain inflicted by the Atlantic slave trade. Reparations are anathema to the countries implicated in the slave trade, and that has prompted the Europeans and the U.S. to steer clear even of a formal apology for fear this would open the way to legal action for compensation. Still, some U.S. civil rights groups are pushing for the conference to address the reparations issue, and some African nations hope to persuade the West to cancel Africa's burdensome foreign debt as a means of partially compensating for the impact of slavery and colonialism.

Other fault lines are appearing

The Middle East imbroglio has left many African nations silently seething over the extent to which their own concerns are being eclipsed by the Arab bloc sticking to its guns over the language condemning Israel. Although many African governments sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, they're uncomfortable with the Arab bloc's apparent willingness to scuttle the whole conference by insisting that the harshest possible language on Israel remain in the final document — because the conference declaration must be adopted by consensus, the impasse over Israel and Zionism threatens to derail the entire enterprise. That prompted the Africans and Europeans to work hard on finding a compromise text, but when a Norwegian-authored text that had reportedly been acceptable to Washington proved was rejected by the Arab bloc over the weekend, first the U.S. and then Israel announced their departure.

The desire to avoid a complete collapse has prompted South Africa to initiate a second compromise attempt using an entirely new text. But there was little optimism Tuesday that the patient could be saved. And, of course, assuming it could, that would leave participants confronting the even more vexing questions of slavery and colonialism. That issue divides Western nations from much of Africa, with the European and U.S. concern being to avoid acknowledging responsibility for slavery in a way that makes them criminally or civilly liable.

But unless the damage on the Middle East can be repaired, disputes over how to address slavery and colonialism in the conference declaration may become academic. That would be unfortunate; it would also derail noble efforts to address such traditionally neglected causes as the plight of India's "untouchables" or Europe's gypsies. And the object lesson here may be that although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of limited strategic importance outside of the Middle East, when left to fester it has a nasty habit of breaking out of those strategic boundaries.