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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK
Analysis: UN conference in tatters
US delegation leader explains their withdrawal
Tom Lantos said the US was not to blame
By the BBC's Barnaby Phillips in Durban

The United Nations conference on racism in South Africa has been thrown into disarray after the American and Israeli delegations announced their withdrawal. Both delegations complained that the conference had been taken over by Islamic extremists.

Tom Lantos, a senior congressmen on the American delegation was visibly angry as he spoke to journalists in the conference hall in Durban.

This conference has been wrecked by Arab and Islamic extremists - this is as plain as the noses on our faces

US congressman Tom Lantos
"The US is the last country that should criticised for the unfolding of events at this conference", he said.

"This conference has been wrecked by Arab and Islamic extremists - this is as plain as the noses on our faces", Mr Lantos said.

The South African Government said the US withdrawal was unfortunate and unnecessary.

A minister in the presidency, Dr Essop Pahad, told the BBC that it would not solve the crisis in the Middle East.

"And, anyway, the conference goes on," he said.

The Palestinian delegation denied responsibility for the walk-out, accusing the Americans of using the Middle East as a pretext to hide their reluctance to confront another thorny issue - African demands that the West pay reparations for slavery.

Robinson defiant

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who is organising the conference, was in defiant mood.

Robinson: regrets the American decision
Robinson: Regretted US decision

She said she regretted the US decision, but that victims of racism demanded that delegates persist in their endeavours.

But Mrs Robinson's brave words cannot disguise the truth. The conference is in tatters, and the damage is probably irreversible.

Remaining countries now have four days to restore some sort of cohesion. But leaving aside the poisonous argument on the Middle East, they are also deeply divided on the issue of reparations for slavery.

Some European countries are in favour of moving towards African demands for an apology for the slave-trade.

But others, such as the United Kingdom, fear a full admission of guilt will leave the way open for litigation and demands for compensation from Africa and African-Americans.

Failure to compromise

It was always apparent that this conference would be difficult.

Despite weeks of preparatory talks, governments had failed to reach compromises on the most difficult issues.

They papered over the cracks, and headed towards Durban more in hope than expectation.

Now Mrs Robinson says delegates must persist in their endeavours. But despite her brave words the real damage has already been done.

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