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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Raucous Racism Conference Commences

DURBAN, South Africa ? On the eve of the world conference on racism, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was pelted by complaints from leaders of ethnic minorities worried their causes will be ignored by the gathering.

And Jewish groups at a civil rights group forum preceding the racism meeting cut short a news conference denouncing anti-Semitism after Arab activists disrupted it with shouting and singing.

Both incidents highlighted the host of controversies surrounding the conference and its draft declaration before it even begins Friday.

?There are going to be a lot of unfulfilled expectations,? said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

Annan ran into those expectations and frustrations during a question-and-answer session at the civil-rights forum. In quick succession, he was challenged to defend the conference?s draft final document by representatives of Latinos, indigenous people, Caribbean citizens and Dalits, known as the untouchable caste in India. All felt their cause was not being emphasized enough, if at all.

?What is important is what we do after the conference. Not the declaration and the papers adopted,? Annan said. Twice Annan was interrupted by shouting. ?Let?s have a dialogue. Let?s have a serious dialogue,? Annan admonished the Dalit representative.

Delegates representing more than 100 countries were to attend the conference, which runs until Sept. 7. About 15 heads of state, many from Africa, were to lead their delegations. Cuban leader Fidel Castro was among those expected.

The United States announced Wednesday it was sending only a mid-level delegation in response to language it considers anti-Semitic in the draft resolution.

Before Annan?s meeting, Jewish groups at the civil rights forum said they had been harassed and discriminated against during the forum?s meetings. Before the groups could complete their presentation, Arab activists began shouting, singing and pushing in front of the speakers, prompting organizers to cut short their news conference.

?This is typical of how we have been treated during this conference,? said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Pro-Palestinian groups have staged daily anti-Israel demonstrations since the forum began Tuesday, equating Zionism ? the belief in a Jewish state ? with racism.

Anne Bayefsky, a law professor representing the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, said the forum had degenerated from being an anti-racism forum into an anti-Semitic movement, and the UN conference was heading in the same direction. ?Things look pretty grim,? Bayefsky said.

Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights and the secretary-general of the conference, said she was very concerned about the acrimony. ?This is a conference about victims of racial discrimination, a conference to move us ? toward reconciliation,? Robinson said. ?This conference cannot solve the Middle East problem.?

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told reporters on his arrival Thursday that the Palestinian issue should be treated as a global issue. ?No doubt it?s one of the most serious problems now, which not only Palestinians are facing, [but] the whole world is facing,? he said.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson said efforts to label Israel a racist state threaten to overshadow other issues. ?The issue of racism is too big to reduce it to the controversy about the Middle East,? Jackson said. ?One can be against the settlements, against the assassination of leaders and not have to label Israel as a racist state. If one goes into labeling, there are a lot of labels to go around.?

Jackson deplored the U.S. government for not sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to lead its delegation, adding that the United States was abdicating its position as a world leader. He said America?s history of slavery, racism and civil rights made the country an important example to the rest of the world.

?The U.S. has a need to be here, in part because we have unfinished business, and yet we have a story to tell and we should not set preconditions so high that we opt out of the position of leadership,? Jackson said.