Even before Israel and the United States walked out of the United Nations conference on racism in Durban over the anti-Semitic sentiments being aired, the summit was a fiasco. India didn’t want to discuss its caste system, China tried to downplay its treatment of Tibet, a Canadian Aboriginal leader was chastised for speaking out against racism and the U.S. and Britain clumsily attempted to explain that while they felt really, really bad about slavery, they just couldn’t apologize for it. Watching the conference slowly implode, watching the bafflement as each controversy reared its head, one had to wonder just what the delegates expected was going to happen in Durban. A photo-op with Nelson Mandela, a couple of choruses of “We Shall Overcome” and a general affirmation that racism is, you know, like, a bad thing? How else to explain the fact that no one at the racism conference seemed willing to actually talk about racism unless it was in the abstract. Or even better, it was some other nation’s racism being discussed. Certainly no nation appeared willing to acknowledge its racism at home. Take Indian Affairs Minister Bob Nault’s reaction to a speech by Assembly of the First Nations Chief Matthew Coon Come. A few days before the conference, Coon Come spoke to an international delegation in Durban about “the oppression, marginalization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples” in Canada. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Aboriginal issues knows this to be a reality and recognizes not only current prejudiced attitudes and actions, but also the devastating legacy of colonization, reserves and residential schools in the disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, illness, incarceration and addiction among native people. Not Nault, however, who demanded an apology from Coon Come, saying “there’s no proof of this in modern time, that the Canadian government and the general population are racist towards aboriginal people.” Nault added that Coon Come’s comments were “not acceptable for any national leader to make in an international forum.” Coon Come is an internationally known Aboriginal activist at a United Nations conference on racism. What exactly does Nault think is acceptable for him to talk about? Hockey? The weather? Apparently the Canadian delegation went to Durban only to condemn other nations and to discuss racism in only the vaguest of terms: Somebody somewhere is doing something wrong, but don’t upset anyone by naming names. Actually, one name did get named and that was Israel, singled out as a “racist state” by some official conference delegates, as well as by attendees at a parallel summit of non-governmental organizations. While Palestinians have legitimate grievances, the criticisms of Israel rapidly deteriorated into the basest expressions of anti-Semitism, a bizarre and deeply disturbing ganging-up on a single nation and people. There were even hateful anti-Jewish flyers, caricatures and cartoons being passed around. No wonder Israel walked out. The U.S. delegation picked up and left, too. That’s no surprise. Not only is Israel an important ally – the U.S. and Israel boycotted two previous U.N. anti-racism conferences – but the U.S. is increasingly disinclined to participate in any kind of international endeavour or treaty. There may have even been some principles involved in its stand, but I’m cynical. The controversy about Israel overshadowed the issue of slavery reparations, which many thought would dominate discussions. By leaving the conference on the heels of Israel, the U.S. managed to strategically avoid growing demands by many African nations for an apology for slavery. As reparations have become a high-profile cause for African Americans, Britain and the U.S. are worried that any acknowledgement of their past slave trading might leave them open to enormous lawsuits. The standard line for both nations is that they are “deeply regretful,” but not, apparently, sorry. At this point, it will take a miracle to salvage anything from the Durban conference, which ends tomorrow. Canada is barely hanging in, amid demands from Jewish groups for it to withdraw. The primary goal of the conference – to discuss effective remedies to address racism around the globe – has all but been lost. At last count, eighty of the 185 paragraphs contained in the most recent draft declaration are still up for debate. The irony is that all the conference was trying to accomplish was the drafting of a declaration. If these people can’t even agree to put something down on paper, can you imagine what would happen if they actually had to solve a problem?