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Powell Decides Not to Attend Racism Conference in Durban

By Robin Wright

After weeks of deliberation, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has decided not to attend the U.N. conference on racism beginning in Durban, South Africa, later this week.

Senior U.S. officials said Saturday that the Bush administration has not yet determined whether to send a lower-level delegation from Washington, send diplomats in the region or possibly boycott the conference altogether.

For Washington, the two most controversial issues are moves to equate Zionism with racism and to make reparations for slavery.

The long-awaited decision will evoke widespread disappointment and anger, both at home and abroad, because the stakes in South Africa extend far beyond those controversies, as the world debates whether to expand the definition of what constitutes a basic human right.

The Powell decision underscores the volatility of that debate -- and the reluctance by even democratic governments to break new ground.

The dilemma about whether to attend the conference has been an ironic one for Powell, the nation’s first black secretary of State, who has written and spoken extensively about his own experiences with racism.

Some four decades ago, as a young Army lieutenant stationed in Georgia, he repeatedly butted up against lingering discrimination. “I could go into a department store and they would take my money, as long as I did not try to use the men’s room. I could walk along the street, as long as I did not look at a white woman,” he recalled in his autobiography “My American Journey.”

Aides say the decision was an especially tough one for Powell, who has openly and often said he wanted to attend.

In contrast, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the first black person to hold the other powerful foreign-policy job in the executive branch, was a leading voice against sending Powell to Durban, according to U.S. officials and representatives of human-rights groups who dealt with her.

Public pressure has been intense for weeks. The Congressional Black Caucus and human-rights groups have besieged the White House and State Department with appeals to send Powell.

“As a nation, we must be committed to end racism in all its forms. To do that, we need to be part of the discussion, whether we agree with the final [conference] declaration or not. ... We should at least be at the table -- and at the highest level,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) who will attend the conference as a member of the black caucus.