Unusual consensus on uncomfortable topic

Conference: International event ended much better than it started to reach reasonable compromise.

September 11, 2001

TALKING ABOUT tough problems can change things for the better.

That's what happened during the World Conference Against Racism, which overcame a lot of the hatred it sought to condemn to reach a reasonable consensus.

Of course, the conference did not end racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. No one thought it would. But the meeting provided a groundwork for discussing some of the deep-seated problems internationally and in each of the 160 or so nations that attended in Durban, South Africa.

It was regrettable that much of the conference was dominated by criticisms of Israel, with Arab countries seeking to use the event to undermine that nation's immutable right to exist. But the conference recognized self-determination for Palestinians while rejecting hateful language that equated Zionism with racism.

The final declaration, in an even-handed fashion, expressed deep concern for "the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities."

Also important, the final document declared that the Holocaust "must never be forgotten."

The conference didn't forget the Transatlantic slave trade, either, calling it a crime against humanity.

The conference brought no language on reparations but plenty of room for reconciliation. African countries sought aid and a restoration of the dignity they have been denied for so long.

The final declaration is imperfect. Some countries successfully avoided any criticism of their racial policies. But history is replete with imperfect documents that paved ground for progress.

It was a shame that the White House sent a low-level delegation and then walked out completely. A strong and engaged U.S. presence could have made the moderately successful conference better.

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