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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 03:15 GMT 04:15 UK
Rows mar start of racism conference
Pro-Palestinian demonstrator
The Middle East looks set to dominate the conference
Rows over the Middle East conflict and the wording of a draft final document have overshadowed a major international conference on racism opening in South Africa.

Hopes that the eight-day event in Durban would produce a show of multi-national unity have faded, with ethnic minorities worried that their causes will be ignored and controversial moves by pro-Palestinian groups to single out Israel for condemnation.

We continue not to believe that this conference is an appropriate place to single out one country or to deal with the issues specific to one region

John Manley, Canadian Foreign Minister
America and Canada have refused to send high-level representatives. They object to what they see as anti-Semitic language in the draft text, while Jewish groups have complained of harassment by Arab activists during preparatory meetings.

Disagreements over the wording of the final declaration, which dogged the run-up to the conference, have not yet been settled.

Zionism targeted

Egypt has said Arab states will stop short of their original intention to try to pass a controversial resolution equating Zionism with racism, but will continue to press for condemnation of Israel's practices towards the Palestinians.

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat: Palestinians' plight is a global issue
On arrival at the venue on Thursday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said the plight of the Palestinians ought to be treated as a global issue.

"No doubt it's one of the most serious problems now, which not only Palestinians are facing, (but) the whole world is facing," he told reporters.

The 22 members of the Arab League plan to meet before the conference opens to co-ordinate their position, while Mr Arafat is expected to deliver a speech.

The conference aims to produce a declaration and a plan of action for countries to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination.

"This is not just a public relations exercise. Countries will have to accept a programme and there should be national plans to implement that," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.


About 6,000 delegates from 150 countries, including 15 heads of state, will attend the conference, which will be opened on Friday by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and South African President Thabo Mbeki.

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt in Durban says some of the wrangling in advance of the conference was due to countries trying to make sure they were not committed to more than they were prepared to carry out.

As well as controversy over the Middle East, there has also been strong disagreement over the issue of slavery.

Some African countries have demanded an apology and compensation from former slave-trading nations - a move rejected by European countries and the United States.

The BBC's Rageh Omaar in Durban
"Recriminations between Israelis and Muslims have come to the fore"
The BBC's David Loyn
speaks to delagates at the conference in Durban
See also:

28 May 99 | South Africa elections
South Africa's crime crisis
29 Aug 01 | Americas
US lobbies racism conference
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