Talks under way to salvage racism conference

By Dina Kraft Associated Press Writer
Wednesday September 05, 2001

DURBAN, South Africa — Desperate to save the U.N. racism conference, the European Union and South Africa joined forces Tuesday to try resolving the language dispute that prompted a walkout by the United States and Israel. 

References to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were temporarily removed from a draft declaration while the South Africans formulated substitute language, said Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

She insisted Tuesday that the dispute has not derailed the World Conference Against Racism. 

“There is a good sense that we are back on course,” said Robinson, who organized the gathering. 

The South Africans, the European Union and the Arab League met throughout the day Tuesday and were expected to continue talks until as late as Friday, the last day of the conference. 

In the original 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.” 

The United States and Israel — which boycotted racism conferences in 1978 and 1983 — had warned they would pull out if language in the proposed final declaration singled out Israel for criticism. 

The Europeans sought swift drafting of a brief text that voiced support for both sides in the Mideast conflict, said Olivier Alsteens, spokesman for Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, the EU representative. 

He said the European Union said it had no current plans to leave the conference. But if it did, it would do so as a bloc, along with the union’s 13 candidate states, Alsteens said. 

The EU said it was committed to making progress on the Mideast section of the declaration but if no headway is made, countries disagreeing with the language could reject particular sections while accepting the rest. 

“We are not starting the negotiations with an eye on their failure. Europe really wants success even if we think that it will be very, very difficult,” Alsteens said. 

Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, said a final declaration would be “meaningless” if there are no specific references to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. 

Nearly a year of Mideast fighting has left peace efforts in shambles. 

Moussa denied American accounts that it was Arab inflexibility that broke down efforts to find a new compromise text in initial attempts led by Norway. 

“No, no, no. I believe the inflexibility was shown by the withdrawal (of the U.S. and Israel) 31/2 days before the end of the conference,” he said. 

South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is writing the compromise draft, said discussions were on track and that she did not think other countries would leave. 

“I’m not going to be pushed into ultimatums and all that because it is not conducive to negotiations,” Dlamini-Zuma said. 

In a statement released in Durban on Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had stayed on Washington, denounced “hateful language” in the draft declaration and announced he was recalling the delegation. 

Jewish delegations at the conference announced Tuesday they were pulling out as well. 

And a coalition of Jewish groups also was among non-governmental organizations that refused to sign a final statement from NGOs. 

Anti-Israel language in the declaration of the NGO conference on racism included references to genocide and ethnic cleansing by the Jewish state. 

According to an eastern European bloc of non-governmental organizations, 57 of 166 NGOs rejected the text. 

Robinson told a news conference Tuesday that because of the text’s “hurtful” language, this was the first time she was not recommending the NGO document as a model to the coinciding U.N. meeting.