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Monday, 30 July, 2001, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Rows threaten racism conference
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson
Ms Robinson said no nation was above criticism
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has called on Arab nations to end attempts to label Israel as racist as their stance is threatening to undermine a major conference on racism.

The United States has threatened to withdraw from the meeting unless Arab countries agree to remove wording from a draft document equating Zionism - the Jewish statehood movement - with racism.

Civil society will be taking the opportunity in Durban to remind every country that it has problems

Mary Robinson
Mrs Robinson said the UN had already dealt with the issue at great length, and re-opening it could put the success of the conference, due to take place in September, at risk.

The US and some European countries, including the UK and France, are also opposing demands from some African countries for an apology and payment of compensation for slavery.

Mrs Robinson made her appeal to delegates at a special preparatory session in Geneva aimed at thrashing out their differences and agreeing an agenda.

Addressing the meeting, she said: "I am acutely aware of the suffering of the Palestinian people, and dismayed at the continuing toll of deaths and injuries."

But, she added: "I believe that it is inappropriate to reopen this issue in any form here."

Mrs Robinson said the UN had dealt with the issue previously at great length, and that the conference's emphasis should be on the future rather than the past.

'New apartheid

In their draft declaration, Arab and Asian nations call Israel's treatment of Palestinians "a new kind of apartheid".

Possible child slave is taken off the MV Etireno
There are still concerns about slavery in Africa today
The declaration also says that there have been many holocausts, not just one - and so Israel should not insist on the word having a capital letter.

This is vehemently opposed by Israel, and the US - which has repeatedly threatened not to attend the Durban meeting.

"Some delegations in Geneva have proposed unacceptable language in several paragraphs of the draft agenda", said US State Department spokeswoman Brenda Greenberg.

She added: "Serious work has to be done to eliminate unbalanced and inflammatory language on the Middle East, and slavery and reparations."

The US failed to send delegations to the last two racism conferences over the Zionism clause.

The host, South Africa, is concerned that an absence of the US in Durban would seriously undermine any agreements which may be reached.


Opinion is also divided on another crucial issue - reparations for slavery and colonialism.

African leaders are demanding an apology and some form of compensation ever more loudly as the US and some European countries step up pressure on Germany to reimburse Nazi victims for their suffering.

Britain, France, Germany - and the US again - will have nothing of it.

The European countries are wary of acquiring any financial obligations to remedy past wrongs.

For its part, Washington says it will be willing to consider a collective expression of regret - but no more.

BBC correspondent Alex van Wel says delegates in Geneva will have some reason to feel sceptical over their chances of finding consensus on these issues.

The BBC's Emma Kirby
"Mary Robinson urged delegates that Durban should mark the start of a shift of emphasis"
The Economists' James Lamont, in Johannesburg
"There are some serious disagreements"
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