Talks intensify as European delegates ready to walk out of racism conference

By Chris Tomlinson Associated Press Writer
Thursday September 06, 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 that it and the European Union could follow the United States and Israel by walking out on 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 delegations’ 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.” 

An EU deadline on the issue set for Wednesday night was reached without a compromise, said Koen Vervaeke, spokesman for Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel. He said a special drafting committee had finished its work Wednesday night without an accord. 

Vervaeke said the EU had given South African mediators its position and would now wait to see what kind of text they come up with. It wasn’t immediately clear if that would occur during Thursday’s session. 

Earlier Wednesday, in an effort to save the conference, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjoern Jagland sent his deputy, Raymond Johansen, to Durban to take over leadership of the Norwegian delegation. 

“The racism conference is in danger of completely breaking down. I am going to Durban to try to contribute to it reaching a result that does not damage the international battle against racism,” Johansen said. 

Norway had tried unsuccessfully earlier in the week to broker a deal between the United States, Israel and the Arab states. 

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 ... 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.