Kaizer Nyatsumba: America and its allies are frightened of a good argument

'Like spoilt brats they threw tantrums and threatened to boycott the racism conference'
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Bring back the old Soviet Union to counterbalance the US – American arrogance has become absolutely intolerable. Although that country's air of superiority and hypocrisy has always been difficult to bear, it has become nauseatingly so under President George W Bush.

Over the years the US has been guilty of the worst forms of hypocrisy, in one breath speaking the language of democracy and railing against countries it does not like, while in the next embracing some of the most loathsome characters while turning a blind eye to human rights violations in their countries.

The US has been a wonderful democracy at home, where a multiplicity of voices have traditionally been heard on different issues, while abroad it has tended to act as though it owned the world. It has been all too ready to tell other countries how to run their affairs, but reluctant to get its own, often-parochial views challenged on international fora.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Americans – who had threatened to boycott the international conference on racism, xenophobia and related intolerances in Durban (which opens this Friday) if they did not get certain issues removed from the agenda – have decided that Secretary of State Colin Powell will not attend. Together with a number of European countries, including Britain, the US was unhappy with the equation of Zionism to racism and the demand for financial reparations for slavery and colonialism.

Ironically those countries, some of which never tire of reminding the world of their democratic credentials, have demonstrated that they are afraid of debate. Instead of being ready to go to Durban to take on those making these demands, as would be expected of democrats confident of their case and unafraid of debate, they browbeat other countries into dropping Zionism and reparations from the agenda. Like spoilt brats, they threw tantrums and threatened to boycott the conference unless they got their way.

Effectively, then, these countries are guilty of a form of censorship worse than that practised by Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe. Where Mr Mugabe tries to silence opposition within the borders of his country, the US and its junior partners are guilty of censorship on a worldwide basis. Together they have cowed many sovereign countries into removing from the agenda issues they did not want discussed.

They succeeded at this: Zionism will no longer be debated and the demand for financial reparations has been dropped. And yet, even with their bully boy tactics having worked, the US, still unhappy with the compromise struck, decided against Powell attending the conference.

I did not approve of the inclusion of the Zionism-equals-racism issue on the agenda, and nor did I think it correct for Africans to demean themselves and those who suffered from both slavery and colonialism by insisting on financial reparations. I think Africa should be concerned about what it can make of its future, rather than continue to be a prisoner of the past, instinctively attributing its present parlous state to the past as if the continent were helpless. That, however, does not excuse the Americans' crude attempt at international censorship.

Still, some of us hope that the conference will strike a real blow for human rights and spur governments to take concrete steps to end the last vestiges of racism. While compensation for slavery and colonialism, in the form of granting exports of poor countries easier access to Western markets, an equally important way of paying tribute to the millions around the world who gave their lives in the fight against discrimination would be to end that scourge once and for all.

It would also be a great pity if the worsening crisis in the Middle East is not discussed. No issue is more deserving of serious international debate. For nearly a year the conflict has raged, with many living in fear on a daily basis. Naked terrorism has been perpetrated by each group against the other, although the two parties to the conflict can hardly be said to be equally culpable.

The Middle East will not know peace for as long as the Israelis show a flagrant disregard of international agreements and increasingly fail to heed even the occasionally mild censure of their biggest ally, the US. It is significant that the US, which has traditionally shielded the Israelis from international criticism while pretending to be honest brokers in that conflict, has recently found it necessary to criticise publicly Israel and its hawkish leader, Ariel Sharon.

Palestinian organisations like Hamas have themselves been guilty of equally dastardly deeds. However, the Israelis have been so arrogant and so provocative that they have left the Palestinians very little choice.

When you treat people like dirt, and refuse to acknowledge that they are also human and have rights, you leave them no choice but to fight back.

The writer is an Associate Editor on The Independent and former Editor of the Daily News in Durban, South Africa.