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World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

7 September 2001

Church leaders condemn US attempts to subvert anti-racism conference
by Stephen Webb

Church leaders in South Africa and the United States have reacted strongly to the news that the US has further downgraded its delegation to the World Conference Against Racism, being held in Durban, South Africa, this week.

It first appeared that the United States, along with Israel, had pulled out of the conference altogether on the night of September 3. But the next morning, Mary Robinson, UN high commissioner for Human Rights and secretary general of the conference, said the US would still participate.

She reported that Michael Southwick, the head of the US delegation, had told her that he and other colleagues were returning to Washington but that Craig Kuehl, the consul-general of the US in Durban, would represent the delegation and would be "looking after US interests at the conference in the normal way".

On the morning of September 5, media were told that the conference was still waiting to hear if the US wanted to withdraw its credentials.

While Robinson was optimistic for the future of the conference, the US action was seen by some as rendering the conference a failure.

Rev. Dr Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, said from his office in New York that he strongly regretted the downgrading of the US delegation. "To begin with, the decision prejudges the conference’s ultimate declaration, which will not be finalized until September 7. Even then, the US government could have registered its objections at the points it deemed necessary, while demonstrating with its presence its commitment to ending racism."

Walking out spoke loudly and clearly, Edgar said. "The US government made its point, but at an unfortunate, heavy cost, I contend. In walking out, the US forfeited a critically important opportunity to address with courage the legacy, tenacity and toll of racism, and to be a part of taking a step - however small, however imperfect - towards setting things right."

Bishop Mvumelwano Dandala of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa said that "My despair is that a nation that celebrates democracy like the USA finds it difficult to pursue vigorous dialogue in a situation where it finds itself in a minority."

Dandala, who is president of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and leader of the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation to the World Conference said: "This is a terrible message to young democracies who have ideals of replacing war with dialogue."

US civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking at parallel events during the conference, said that the US government had chosen not to withdraw from the conference "but to subvert it". "The US cannot lead the global fight against racism from the rear. It cannot lead through disengagement," he said.

South African president Thabo Mbeki was reported as saying that the US decision was "an even worse error of judgment than sending a low-level delegation".

Reporting that there had been a great deal of sadness and dismay over the decision by the US and Israel to withdraw their delegates, Mary Robinson highlighted a very welcome spirit among delegates to ensure that the important work of Durban continue and come to fruition.

She said that the conference president, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, South Africa's foreign minister, had proposed that all language relating to the Middle East be withdrawn from the Conference text and that substitute language be agreed upon.

While the US withdrew its delegation ostensibly because the conference seemed likely to "single out Israel for censure and abuse", its decision came immediately after strong statements to the conference plenary by African nations on the matter of reparations. Some observers felt that this was not a coincidence.

Members of the WCC delegation to the conference were disappointed that the US had apparently left because it found one or two issues unpalatable when dozens of racism issues are to be addressed by the conference’s programme of action.

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