By Cose, Ellis
There is something of the apostle in Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. So when she talks of "difficulty on the road to Durban," it puts one in mind of a more famous road, the one taken by Saul on his way to Damascus, en route to changing from persecutor to saver of souls. But unlike Saul, the unbeliever, Robinson passionately believes--in the need for confession, the importance of repentance and the healing power of sincere expressions of remorse. She has brought that faith to her present task-convening the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The meeting, scheduled for the end of August in Durban, South Africa, is supposed to do for racial and ethnic minorities what the 1995 Beijing women's conference did for women. That conference put women's issues squarely on the international agenda and energized reform efforts around the globe.
Robinson hopes for "a breakthrough" in Durban that ushers in new era in human relations. The "catharsis" will come, in her view, from nations' addressing "the exploitations and violations of the past" and making amends--or at least sincerely apologizing--for colonialism and slavery.
Many of Robinson's U.N. colleagues share neither her enthuiasm nor her faith. Instead of seeing the conference as an opportunity for global reconciliation, they see it as an invitation to litigation and demands for compensation, and a venue of potential embarrassment. So the preliminary sessions of the conference have bogged down in disagreements. What was to have been the final preparatory meeting ended a month ago with delegates miles apart on language for the main conference documents.
They will reconvene at the end of July. In the interim, Robinson is traveling the globe, trying to persuade foreign secretaries and other high-ranking officials to get personally involved. Without their engagement the conference may fail, she suggested over a recent breakfast in New York.
Some of the difficulties were inevitable, for the subject requires countries, as Robinson puts it, to look into their "dark corners"--a task most would rather avoid. It also raises thorny questions not just of diplomacy but of history, philosophy, morality and law. And deliberations have been complicated by the intense involvement of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). Activists of all stripes from around the globe see the conference as their big chance to get the world's attention.
Representatives of the Roma (Gypsies) have furiously lobbied delegates to focus on the discrimination Roma face in housing and education. …