SOUTH African, EU officials seek compromise at racism conference after U.S., Israel walk out


Wednesday, September 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



DURBAN, South Africa (AP) _ The threat of further walkouts loomed over the World Conference Against Racism on Wednesday as the European Union demanded progress in removing controversial language from the draft declaration.

France warned it could follow the United States and Israel by quitting 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.''

The United States and Israel left Monday after efforts to find a compromise with Arab states failed.

Anxious to salvage the meeting, several delegations worked to forge a compromise before a Wednesday evening deadline the EU set to remove anti-Israel references from the draft declaration. When the deadline expires, the EU plans to evaluate the progress and decide on its next step.

A group of South Africans and Belgians _ representing the European Union _ as well as delegates from Norway, Namibia and the Palestinians, worked into the early morning hours, then gathered again later Wednesday to prepare the compromise draft in time to meet the deadline.

The group was considering language drafted by South Africa, where the conference is being held.

``Work is going on. It's continuing,'' said Koen Vervaeke, a spokesman for the Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel. ``There's some progress, but that's all we can say for the moment.''

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin told his cabinet that a decision could be made within hours if ``comparisons between Zionism and racism were maintained'' in the document, spokesman Jean-Jack Queyranne said.

``France and the European Union would seek a departure from this conference, which would mark a failure,'' Jospin was quoted as telling the Cabinet.

The EU said it was committed to making progress on the section of the declaration that deals with the Mideast. However, if no headway is made, countries that object to the language could stay at the conference, rejecting specific portions of the declaration while accepting the rest.

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.

An EU diplomat said the African delegates had come to the conference with a far harder line on the issues than they had taken at the preparatory sessions.

Africans are demanding specific apologies from the countries involved in the slave trade and colonialism, reparations, cancellation of African debt, market access and more investment in the continent, said Marcus Gama, assistant to the head of the Brazilian delegation.

Ivory Coast's justice minister, Siene Oulai, said his delegation was not interested in reparations but that 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. He called for ``a partnership between those who have suffered and those who profited'' from slavery.

Western countries have fought against including talk of reparations in the declaration and resisted giving a full apology.

``It's hard to be optimistic,'' Gama said.

Vervaeke said it was too early to characterize the talks, but ``the positions don't meet.''

The African delegation planned to meet Wednesday to come up with a united position.

On Tuesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson insisted the conference had not been derailed by the departure Monday of the United States and Israel.

She said references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were temporarily removed from the document while the South Africans formulated substitute language.

In the original text, Israel was the only nation singled out for condemnation. Among the sticking points were references to the ``racist practice of Zionism,'' and a description of the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state as an ideology ``based on racial superiority.''

Amr Mousa, secretary-general of the Arab League, said a final declaration would be ``meaningless'' without specific references to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

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.

An editorial in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, published in Munich, Germany, said that ``a global show of hypocrisy is taking place that should be ended before it gets completely out of control.''

It said the conference ``can no longer be saved.''