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Agenda for World Conference on Racism Taking Shape - 2001-08-11

The final meeting to set the agenda for the World Conference on Racism has ended in Geneva, Switzerland. Participants were able to formulate the text of a final declaration for the conference, set to open in Durban, South Africa at the end of August. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights - who is also Secretary General of the Durban conference -held a news conference about the work of the preparatory committee.

For the past two weeks, negotiators in Geneva have been grappling with some tough issues, notably the attempt by Arab states to equate Zionism - the movement that led to the creation of Israel - with racism and attempts to accuse Israel of racist practices against the Palestinians.

Another contentious issue is the call by African countries for some form of apology - even going so far as the payment of compensation by the former colonial powers - for slavery. This second issue, which has become known at the Geneva conference as "addressing the past," appears to have come much nearer to solution. The Middle East issue has proved more intractable.

In the concluding plenary, Israeli Ambassador Yaakov Levy spoke bluntly of continuing differences over Arab attempts to accuse Israel of racist practices. He warned that Israel would have to reconsider its position over attendance at Durban in the days to come.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, is also Secretary General of the Durban conference. During a news conference in Geneva, she was anxious to maintain an upbeat note in her assessment of progress at the preparatory talks, while carefully declining to go into specifics.

Mrs. Robinson said that the formulation of language on the question of "assessing the past" - the slavery issue - had produced a genuine feeling that this was going to be one of the real breakthroughs at Durban. "A number of delegates from the different groups have been saying to me over the past three days - the spirit has changed, the whole atmosphere is so much more positive," she said.

Mrs. Robinson says the negotiations about the Middle East issue are at what she calls "a delicate stage." "There have been a number of discussions about the Middle East and the focus now is on whether it is possible to find appropriate language. At one stage, as you know, there was great resistance to any text from particular quarters. It may be that if appropriate texts can be found that this problem can be surmounted," said Mrs. Robinson. "But it's at a very delicate stage and in many ways I don't really want to say any more. It has been for me really encouraging to see the shared commitment to going together, every country, to Durban, to complete the work and to have a real breakthrough against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. I believe that that is still possible and I am appreciative of the efforts that are being made to achieve that objective."

The United States initially threatened to boycott the Durban conference if the issues of compensation for slavery and the Middle East were pushed too far.

Mary Robinson said the U.S. delegates at Geneva had been - in her words -"fully engaged," and she had been made aware of the importance of the Durban conference to the United States. "I know from my two meetings on it with Secretary of State Colin Powell that he personally believes that it is very important, and that he personally dearly wishes to go to Durban," she said. "So I think that we are all now focusing on is how to ensure that the United State, and hopefully led by Secretary of State Powell, will be at Durban with all other states. "

Mary Robinson appealed on Thursday for more time to be made available to continue work on elaborating compromise texts. And she said it was highly likely that this work would go on more informally next week in Geneva even though the main meeting was over.