Delegates struggle to find compromise at racism meeting
Thursday, September 6, 2001
DURBAN, South Africa -- Under threat of a devastating European walkout, the World Conference Against Racism held closed-door meetings Wednesday to try to find compromise language on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and reparations for slavery.
France warned it and the European Union could follow the United States and Israel by quitting the U.N. meeting, which was meant to highlight discrimination around the world but has been marred by discord over efforts to condemn Israel for "racist policies."
"If comparisons between Zionism and racism remain, the question of France's, and the European Union delegation's, departure would be posed immediately," French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin told a Cabinet meeting, according to spokesman Jean-Jack Queyranne. "France and the European Union would seek a departure from this conference, which would mark a failure."
EU delegates said they had set a deadline of Wednesday night to make substantial progress on the issue.
Koen Vervaeke, spokesman for Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who is leading the EU delegation, said the EU would not sign a document that takes sides in the Middle East conflict. However, he said the delegation had no immediate plans to leave.
"Walking away is not on the agenda at this moment," Vervaeke said. "Everybody, has to gain from a successful outcome to this conference."
Delegates from the 15 EU countries said they would act as a bloc along with 13 nations that are candidates for EU membership.
In the original draft text, Israel is the only nation singled out for condemnation. Among the sticking points were references to the "racist practice of Zionism," and description of the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state as an ideology "based on racial superiority."
Amr Moussa, Arab League secretary-general, has said if there were no specific references to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians a final declaration would be "meaningless."
The United States and Israel left the conference Monday when talks with the Arab League over removing the anti-Israel language broke down.
The dispute over the wording of the Mideast section has diverted attention from other issues, but the issue of how to deal with the legacy of slavery also have been contentious.
Many African delegations want the U.N. meeting's final declaration to include a mechanism for reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Throughout the conference's planning stages, the United States opposed putting reparations on the agenda, and the U.S. departure appeared to harden some positions.
African nations that had reportedly promised to drop demands for reparations suddenly put them back on the table this week. African-American groups have lobbied hard for reparations to be included in conference documents.
The EU on Wednesday was in talks with African delegations over the issue. It has offered a limited apology for colonialism and slavery, but does not want reparations mentioned.
Africans led by Zimbabwe and Namibia are demanding specific apologies from the countries involved in the slave trade and colonialism, reparations, cancellation of African debt and more investment in the continent, said Marcus Gama, assistant to the head of the Brazilian delegation.
"For the moment all the positions are maximalist ... It's hard to be optimistic," Gama said. "I think (all sides) will have to make concessions before the end of the conference or there will be no conference."
The conference's draft document calls for "an explicit apology by the former colonial powers," and requires "substantial national and international efforts be made for reparations" to Africans, African descendants and indigenous peoples.
Ivory Coast's justice minister, Siene Oulai, said his delegation was not interested in being paid reparations, but believed Western nations should forgive the huge debt owed by African nations to international financial institutions.
"What is necessary is that the slave trade be recognized as a crime against humanity and recognition that Africa suffered a lot from the trans-Atlantic slave trade," Oulai said. "What is important is to create a partnership between those who have suffered and those who profited from the slave trade to cooperate better."
The conference's final declaration and program of action is not legally binding, but represents a pledge by governments to carry it out. If a country is opposed to specific language, they can still sign the documents while rejecting specific paragraphs.
European newspapers said the efforts to condemn Israel threatened to scuttle the conference.
"In Durban it's clear that several governments are using the U.N. for their own purposes. They are holding the U.N. as hostage," the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter said in an editorial Wednesday.
The conference, which began Aug. 31, is scheduled to end Friday.