Accessibility links

Racism Conference Talks Remain Deadlocked - 2001-09-05

Negotiations remain deadlocked as delegates try to salvage the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. They are haggling over the wording of the conference declaration and program of action in relation to the Middle East and reparations for slavery. The European Union has threatened to withdraw over the issues if significant progress is not made soon toward a consensus.

Conference officials and other delegations are denying reports that the European Union has issued a deadline for making progress toward changing the language in the conference declaration. Delegates continue their negotiations over the language on reparations and on the Middle East.

The European Union's threat to pull out of the Durban conference has been officially linked, by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, to the way Israel is treated in the document. But diplomats say European delegates are also unhappy with the way reparations talks have been going.

Earlier reports said African nations had hardened their stance on the issue. But the two nations moderating the debate, Kenya and Brazil, say those talks are ongoing, and the European Union has been participating.

Amina Mohammed represents Kenya. She said they are very optimistic that they will find a way to bridge the gaps that remain between the two sides. "I think there is no disagreement over what the main issues are," she said. "The only disagreement that is out there is over how to term this, what language to use, how to reflect this, what expectations could be met at the end of the conference, and what to do at the end of the conference, how do we put anything that we agree on into effect, how do we follow this up."

Ms. Mohammed did not elaborate, but it appears that one sticking point is whether the document will refer to slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity.

Another problem is whether Western nations will apologize to victims of the slave trade, and how. Ms. Mohammed says all of the options on the table include either an outright apology, an expression of deep remorse, or one of regret.

As she spoke, several hundred people gathered outside the conference center for a candlelight vigil. They were calling on delegates to set aside their differences and build a consensus. Many of them also called for reparations, now.

Earlier in the day, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu also urged the delegates to get down to business. "There are people who are invisible," he said. "There are people who speak, and their words are not heard. And those people look to this conference as a beacon of hope."

The Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke on behalf of the ecumenical caucus, a group of Christian organizations attending the conference. The caucus issued a statement condemning racism as a sin, and calling slavery a crime against humanity. Archbishop Tutu called on the West to make amends. "It is quite important to look at the fact that the language that is used is reparation, not compensation," he said. "How do you compensate me for the loss of freedom? How do you compensate me for the loss of a loved one, et cetera?"

That is a question delegates locked in negotiations over the declaration wording may well be asking themselves.