Talks on slavery, Middle East extend racism conference

Saturday, September 8, 2001

DURBAN, South Africa -- European negotiators agreed to a compromise over a key issue on slavery Friday, but the U.N. conference on racism remained deadlocked over the Middle East conflict and reparations for slavery.

Negotiators at the U.N. racism conference remained locked in talks Friday night -- hours after the gathering was to have ended -- in a last-ditch effort to rescue the global gathering from unraveling over the Middle East conflict and reparations for slavery.

"The concrete results of this conference are essential to the fight against racism around the world," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who is leading the European Union negotiators at the conference.

The EU agreed earlier Friday to a compromise calling on those responsible for slavery to find ways to restore the dignity of victims, resolving a key issue deadlocking the World Conference Against Racism.

The statement amounted to an apology, said EU spokesman Koen Vervaeke, but would block any lawsuits seeking reparations. While the conference's documents are not legally binding, once adopted all countries promise to fulfill the applicable pledges made.

Meanwhile, the issue of how to deal with the Middle East conflict in conference documents also remained in limbo Friday.

Muslim countries were considering whether to walk out of the global meeting because they said proposed language on the Middle East was too weak. The United States and Israel walked out Monday after the Arab states rejected a compromise proposed by Norway.

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, said Vervaeke.

"There was a breakthrough on the notion of an apology," said Vervaeke, a spokesman for Michel. "In the way it's drafted now there can't be any legal consequences."

The European Union has been unwilling to issue an apology because it felt that would leave it open to lawsuits.

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