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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 01:05 GMT 02:05 UK
Racism conference undermined by division
Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson wants the conference to heal old wounds
By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

Bitter arguments marked the preparations for the UN World Conference Against Racism in the South African city of Durban.

An event designed to come to terms with deep rooted prejudices and resentments seems in danger of merely exacerbating them.

The most difficult issues to resolve are slavery and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Conference posters being erected
The conference has been beset by problems
The search for a form of words that everyone could agree to put in the final declaration led to threats by the US and Israel to boycott the meeting entirely - they did not attend two previous conferences 1978 and 1983.

The Durban conference is supposed to be a landmark in the struggle against racism.

Deep hurt

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who is in charge of the proceedings, says there is a deep hurt felt in many parts of the world at the lack of recognition of the impact of mass slavery and the exploitation of colonialism.

She has called for language that solemnly recognises this, saying it is nearly impossible to shape a new future if old wounds are still open.

The discussions in two preparatory meetings have made it abundantly clear they still are.

Would I get compensation for slavery, or would I pay it?

Colin Powell

The most obvious and topical wound has been reopened by the violence of the last few months between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel's response to the second Palestinian uprising, in particular to the latest wave of suicide bomb attacks, has returned the Middle East atmosphere to something reminiscent of the 1970s.

It was then that the UN General Assembly passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism, which was only overturned in 1991.

Pressing for condemnation

Arab countries and others at first tried to get the same language into the Durban declaration.

That has been dropped - but Islamic states have proposed a text referring to the "racist practices of the occupying power" and "racial discrimination against the Palestinians".

The Arab League is pressing for a similar condemnation.

Anything that singles out Israel in this way is rejected by the Americans as well as the Israelis.

American Secretary of State Colin Powell is not going to Durban, mainly because what Washington calls offensive language about Israel.

Anti-Israel protest in Cape Town
There have been attempts to equate Zionism with racism

Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, says he is boycotting the conference in protest at draft texts that denigrate the Holocaust and spotlight Israel as guilty of crimes against humanity.

The European Union has not made its position clear, but British officials say the conference should avoid language on any subject that points the finger at a particular state.

Informal discussions are still going on.

One way out, according to a Western official who did not want to be identified, might be to include a condemnation of both anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia - that would presumably satisfy nobody.

Slave reparations

The argument over slavery seems equally hard to resolve.

Everyone is happy to condemn it and the appalling suffering inflicted over the centuries on Africans in particular.

But African governments and human rights campaigners want to go much further.

Colin Powell
Powell has decided not to attend

They are demanding an apology for the historic injustice of the slave trade, which they say should be recognised as a crime against humanity.

Some also want reparations - financial compensation - though this is more controversial.

The President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, says the idea is absurd and insulting to African people.

The former Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Pierre Sané, concedes that a cheque cannot compensate for spilled blood.

But Mr Sané argues that if African countries are expected to honour financial debts accumulated by previous governments, then states which engaged in slavery should answer for acts committed by their predecessors.

Complex issue

The demands for compensation have probably been encouraged by the moves of recent years to pay reparations to victims of Nazi persecution and their families, even 50 years after the event.

But British officials said money should be allocated to help developing countries on the basis of need now, not on historical criteria related to slavery or other injustice.

As for an apology, the officials asked who would sign up - every member of the United Nations?

They pointed to a comment by Colin Powell, the highest ranking American of black African descent ever to serve in a US government. "Would I get compensation for slavery," he asked, "or would I pay it?"

Lower caste Indian protesters
India is keen to keep its caste system out of the debate

The modern world is complex: the British Foreign Office Minister attending the conference, Valerie Amos, is another descendant of slaves.

The European Union as a whole, many of whose members are former colonial powers, is ready to accept a strongly worded condemnation of slavery, together with a statement of profound regret.

But issuing a formal apology is more problematic.

Discrimination debate

Slavery and the Arab-Israeli conflict are not the only issues causing trouble.

In fact, one human rights campaigner said many governments were going to the conference not with an agenda but with an anti-agenda - things that they wanted kept off the table.

India has worked hard to prevent conference documents referring specifically to discrimination on the grounds of caste, which condemns tens of millions of people to menial jobs and abuse in south Asia.

The Indian Government says it is an internal matter and is trying to argue that the caste system has nothing to do with racism.

China is determined to stop its rule in Tibet being linked with racism.

Gypsies singled out

And a number of countries in Europe with big Roma communities are not looking forward to discussion in Durban of intractable discrimination against gypsies and travellers, as they are still often called.

Mary Robinson has singled them out as a group whose plight has not had much attention at previous international conferences - along with asylum seekers, victims of traffickers and those of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

She believes the Durban conference can bring racism into the open and "start a deeper conversation about it," in her phrase.

But the visible face of the event is likely to be a week's wrangling over wording, the lowest common denominator of everyone's expectations.

The BBC's Barnaby Mason
looks at the precedents for international apologies and compensation
See also:

27 Aug 01 | Americas
Powell boycotts UN racism summit
28 Aug 01 | South Asia
Racism conference 'could look at caste'
11 Aug 01 | Americas
Slavery row dogs racism conference
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