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Racism Conference Thrown into Holding Pattern - 2001-09-07

On what was supposed to be the final day of the World Conference Against Racism, talks remain deadlocked over two issues - the Middle East, and reparations for slavery and colonialism.

The schedule for the final day of the conference was thrown out first thing in the morning Friday. The musical group "Gathering Forces" was supposed to play at the closing ceremony Friday evening, but the organizers had no idea when the conference was actually going to end. They moved the performance to Friday morning.

For days now, two working committees have been toiling over the two contentious issues, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and reparations for slavery and colonialism. They have been trying to draft language for the conference declaration and program of action.

Their continued debate delayed all other scheduled activities. The main committee was supposed meet at 3pm local time. It did not happen. A plenary session was scheduled for 4pm local time. It did not happen either. A news conference with U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson was postponed indefinitely.

The drafting committee, which is responsible for putting together the final declaration and program of action once they have been approved by the working committees, decided to use the time wisely. They went back to work approving less-contentious paragraphs in the two documents.

Initially, they were going to do that right in the plenary hall, so they would not have to change rooms later. But, perhaps noting the large number of journalists in the room, the delegate from India suggested they move elsewhere. "I do not think this is an appropriate setting to work on drafting," said the delegate. "If you like, we can go to one of the drafting rooms with the paragraphs put on the screens, and then make decisions. And then, of course, we can come back here when the main committee begins." The suggestion got a smattering of applause from other delegates in the room. They moved to the smallest meeting room in the building, and journalists who tried to follow them were thrown out.

And so the conference went into a holding pattern as negotiations continued on the Middle East and slavery. Rumors started flying around the media center about deals on one issue or the other, but the truth is that nobody really knew what was happening behind the scenes.

When and how will it end? There are two options. The delegates could keep haggling over the wording until they reach a consensus; or they could decide that agreement is impossible and just give up. If that happens, the main committee will choose the language of the declaration by a vote, requiring a two-thirds majority. Susan Markham is the conference spokeswoman. "We hope that it will not require a vote," she said. We hope that delegations will be able to reach consensus. But in the final analysis, the rules of procedure are there to help the conference come to a final agreement."

Most European nations, Canada and Australia have already indicated they will not accept any language branding Israel a racist state, which is what Arab nations have been calling for. The Europeans have also balked at making an explicit apology for slavery, and at calling it a crime against humanity.

Ms. Markham says she thinks the delegates will try to reach a consensus, but that any member state is entitled to call for a vote at any time.

If neither happens by midnight local time, delegates will stop the clocks and just keep working.