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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 22:24 GMT 23:24 UK
US lobbies racism conference
Palestinian and Israeli supporters confront each other in Durban
The Middle East threatens to dominate the conference
The United States is sending officials on a last-ditch mission to influence the agenda of the World Conference against Racism, which starts on Friday in Durban, South Africa.

But US Secretary of State Colin Powell is keeping to his decision not to attend, in protest at what the US Government sees as discrimination against Israel at the conference.

Instead, a team of diplomats led by a deputy assistant secretary of state, Michael Southwick, is due to arrive in South Africa on Thursday.

Colin Powell
Mr Powell's absence is a significant blow
The move suggests either a skilful diplomatic compromise or a fudge by the Bush administration.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, told the BBC it was extremely important that the US attended the conference.

She said the Americans had great experience of addressing the issues of racism and it would be incredible if they stayed away.

The Southwick team is hoping to persuade the conference to drop what it sees as anti-Israeli references in its documents and thereby allow the US to play a full part in the conference.

"We felt... it was necessary for us to have representatives out there to... work to eliminate this language," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"If we can do that, then we can make the further decisions on how we participate in the conference."

Pressure

The US has come under increasing pressure at home since President George W Bush announced he was considering a boycott.

Black American civil rights leaders have expressed disappointment, with veteran leader the Rev Joseph Lowery denouncing Washington's position as a "shameful cop-out".

The US risked giving the impression it was "not committed to serious efforts to address the issue of racism", he said.


A shameful cop-out

Rev Joseph Lowery

Martin Luther King III, the son of the assassinated civil rights leader, said for his part that the US could only protest at anti-Israeli rhetoric by being at the conference.

The New York-based National Urban League pointed out that the US had opted out of racism conferences in 1978 and 1983 and made the country vulnerable to international isolation.

The US State Department could not say on Wednesday if Mr Southwick was meant to fill Mr Powell's chair on Friday at the opening of the conference.

The BBC's Jon Leyne in Washington says the arrangement will either be seen as a clever compromise or the ultimate triumph of indecision on the part of the Bush administration.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Leyne in Washington
speaks of concern over the US's reluctance to become involved in world affairs
Human Rights Watch's Michael McClintock
"Surprise? No, disappointment? Yes"
See also:

28 Aug 01 | South Asia
Racism conference 'could look at caste'
11 Aug 01 | Americas
Slavery row dogs racism conference
09 Aug 01 | Americas
US may boycott racism conference
30 Jul 01 | Africa
Rows threaten racism conference
27 Jul 01 | Middle East
Zionism issue threatens summit
27 Aug 01 | Americas
Powell boycotts UN racism summit
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