Racism conference agrees to compromise on slavery

Friday, September 7, 2001

Associated Press WriterDURBAN, South Africa (AP) -- The European Union agreed to a compromise calling on those responsible for slavery to find ways to restore the dignity of victims, resolving a key issue deadlocking the U.N. conference against racism, an EU spokesman said Friday.

The statement amounted to a European apology, said spokesman Koen Vervaeke, but would block any lawsuits seeking reparations.

"There was a breakthrough on the notion of an apology," said Vervaeke, spokesman for Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who is leading the EU delegation. "In the way it's drafted now there can't be any legal consequences."

The EU has been unwilling to issue an apology because it felt that would leave it open to potential lawsuits. The compromise text, which was expected to be adopted officially later Friday, noted some countries "regretting, or expressing remorse, or presenting apologies" for slavery and colonialism.

When asked if this amounted to a European apology, Vervaeke said, "Yes."

The debate over an apology for slavery and colonialism, along with language regarding the Middle East, have been the conference's chief stumbling blocks.

African countries still were pushing for slavery and colonialism to be labeled "crimes against humanity" and for Western countries to pay reparations. The EU rejected both calls, Vervaeke said.

The issue of how to deal with the Middle East conflict in conference documents also remained in limbo on Friday, the last scheduled day of the conference. The United States and Israel walked out of the global meeting Monday after the Arab states rejected a compromise proposed by Norway.

The text on slavery to which the parties agreed to on Friday read:

"The World Conference Against Racism further notes that some have taken the initiative of regretting, or expressing remorse, or presenting apologies, and calls on all those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so, and to this end we appreciate those countries that have done so."

Earlier Friday, closing meetings were hastily delayed as diplomats engaged in a frenzy of last-minute negotiations.

Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights and the secretary-general of the conference, had said Friday morning that the likely final declaration from the conference would be nothing to get "very excited about" because of the compromises needed to reach consensus.

"This is very difficult for (the delegates)," Robinson said. "The great achievement will be to get an agreement at all."

If negotiations continued past the scheduled closing of the eight-day gathering, the conference could be extended into Saturday and beyond to allow the talks to continue, said Sue Markham, spokeswoman for the conference.

Arab states rejected a South African proposal on wording on the Middle East conflict that sought to find a compromise between the Arabs' call for the conference to condemn Israeli practices as racist and the European Union's refusal to allow the conference to take sides in the conflict.

The EU had accepted the proposal offered Thursday, Vervaeke said. He said the proposal was the EU's bottom line.

"The ball is now in the Arabs' court," he said.

Nasser al-Kidwa, the Palestinians' representative to United Nations in New York, said the Arab delegations had "made some modest proposals, but the Europeans did not accept them." He did not say what the proposals were.

"The EU refused to negotiate," al-Kidwa said. "It remains to be seen what we will do if the text is presented as it is to the conference. Everything is open."

The rejected proposal recognized the Holocaust and condemned anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. A copy of the text, obtained by AP, also expressed concern "about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation" but did not specifically criticize Israel or mention Zionism.

If a consensus cannot be reached on any part of the conference's final documents, delegates hold a vote, with a two-thirds majority of nations needed to adopt a substantive paragraph.

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