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Confusion Apparent in Final Push For Racism Conf. Agreement - 2001-09-08

Delegates at the World Conference Against Racism are continuing their negotiations through the night. They are trying to draft wording for the conference declaration and program of action, but the talks are deadlocked for an eighth consecutive night. Two issues are still unresolved, the language regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the language regarding slavery and colonialism.

Agreement seems miles away on at least two aspects of the slavery-and-colonialism issue, known in conference shorthand as the legacy of the past. The Western nations do not want to pay monetary reparations to countries that suffered from the slave trade and colonialism.

And they do not want to call them crimes against humanity. Europe has been willing to admit that modern slavery is a crime against humanity, but the Europeans do not want to attach that label to their own past policies, fearing it could leave them open to lawsuits.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel heads the European Union delegation. Speaking to reporters late Friday, he showed no signs of movement on the issue. "Slavery today is of course a crime against humanity. Slavery yesterday, in the past, was of course a very, very grave and awful thing. But it is very difficult to express today if we have to be serious on the judicial level, it is very difficult to consider that you can compare slavery today and slavery in the past," he said.

African nations have demanded an explicit apology for slavery. Europe has balked at that idea, fearing it could give African nations grounds for pursuing monetary reparations.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Michel's spokesman had announced a verbal agreement on the wording of an apology.

But the Belgian foreign minister declined to comment on the issue. He simply said it does not matter what word one uses, whether it be regret, remorse or apology. What matters, he said, is expressing a very strong sense of repentance, and acknowledging the injustice done.

There is confusion on the Middle East issue as well.

Earlier, some news agencies had reported a breakthrough announced by the Pakistani delegation. But the head of the Palestinian delegation flatly denied that, telling the Associated Press there is absolutely no agreement so far.

A Palestinian delegate told VOA the two sides are very close to a deal. The Belgian foreign minister would not comment on the matter, saying the Middle East issues are still under negotiation.