March 12, 2001
2 Stubborn Factions Divide Coming U.N. Meeting on Racism
By BARBARA CROSSETTEUNITED NATIONS, March 9 - A four-day meeting intended to bring some coherence to the agenda of an international conference on racism in August ended today in Geneva with virtually every major issue still in dispute, human rights officials said.
European countries and a bloc of Asian, African and Latin American nations are growing increasingly divided over what the conference will address, said Michael Colson, executive director of U. N. Watch, a private monitoring group based in Geneva. The United States has stood largely on its own, he said, but supports Europe on many issues.
Some diplomats say it is too early to declare the conference agenda in trouble. "I don't think this meeting was ever intended to come to any final conclusions on the document," a Western diplomat said. "It was supposed to be an initial reading, and we have finally started to do that. You've got 100 or so delegations in the room and everyone is making suggestions."
Nevertheless, a second, previously unscheduled working-group session may now have to be planned.
Mr. Colson said India, Pakistan, Iran and Syria dominated the meeting, which began on Tuesday. The four have tried to limit discussion to the Asian and Middle Eastern platform adopted last month at a regional meeting in Iran to firm up the August agenda. "They are largely playing out of the same song book," he said.
Australia and New Zealand were barred from attending the Iran meeting by the Asian nations, which - together with Middle Eastern and Pacific nations - sought to curb all discussion of issues they did not want included on the agenda of the August conference, which is to be held in Durban, South Africa.
The theme of the conference is broad: racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are all part of its title. That approach had encouraged groups around the world that say their experiences with discrimination are never heard in this kind of forum. But leaders of a number of groups found themselves barred from attending the Iran meeting, among them the Bahais and representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Benny Widyono, a leader of Gandi, a relatively new Indonesian rights organization fighting for an end to racism and discriminatory laws against Indonesia's ethnic Chinese people, was among those who left the Iran meeting dissatisfied. In an interview here this week, he said neither his organization nor groups representing the ethnic Chinese of Malaysia had been able to get their cases included on the Asian agenda for Durban. Advocates for dalits, or untouchables, in India also remained unacknowledged.
"There are 43 legal documents in Indonesia that discriminate against minorities," Mr. Widyono said. "We wanted to ask for their repeal. Most of these were instituted by President Suharto as a punishment for all Chinese."
Mr. Widyono said he did not believe that participants in the Iran meeting had acted out of malice toward ethnic Chinese - an ethnic Papuan from Indonesia was also sidelined - but rather that the Iranians, backed by other large Asian nations, had organized the conference in a way that effectively kept unofficial campaigns from being aired.
Various groups feeling that they have been excluded from the planning of the conference will have another chance to lobby when a final preparatory meeting takes place in Geneva from May 21 to June 1.
©Copyright 2001, The New York Times Company