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S. Africa Neutral on Racism Conference Agenda - 2001-08-07

South African officials say they are trying to remain neutral in the dispute about what items should be included on the agenda for the United Nations-sponsored conference on racism to begin later this month in Durban, South Africa. The United States has threatened to boycott the summit if two issues, Zionism and reparations for slavery, remain on the program. South African officials say they hope conference planners who are meeting in Geneva can work out compromises on the two questions.

South Africa desperately wants the World Conference Against Racism to be a success. But Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad says he is afraid the debate over the agenda will overshadow the other important issues to be discussed in Durban. He does not want two issues, Zionism and reparations for slavery, to hijack the entire summit. "Because we believe that the whole issue of racism, xenophobia, and related intolerance is such an important issue, we can't allow the conference to get derailed by the two issues, the very deeply felt issues, that I have just mentioned," he said. "And we hope that some consensus will emerge from Geneva in order for us to insure that the conference does deal with a forward-looking approach."

Mr. Pahad says it appears likely at this point that reparations will remain on the agenda in some form or another. He sounded confident that the delegates in Geneva would find a way to approach the issue that will keep the United States on board, while still satisfying the people who want to discuss making reparations for slavery.

Zionism, however, is another matter. Mr. Pahad indicated that it may not be possible to bring the opposing sides to an agreement before the Durban conference starts. He reminded reporters that the United States boycotted two previous U.N. racism conferences over the issue.

Despite Pretoria's close ties with the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Pahad refused to say whether he thought Zionism should be included on the agenda. South African officials are trying to remain neutral in this dispute, encouraging both sides to strike a deal. But he did say he hopes the United States and its allies will choose to continue the debate in Durban. "We would hope that given the importance of this matter, the United States government will see it fit to come. I think that our own view would be that we must start creating this atmosphere that everything is debatable," he said. "If your viewpoints are strong enough and you can convince many governments, let's go to conference to achieve that."

Mr. Pahad refused to speculate on whether the conference could be a success if the United States is absent. He simply said South Africa is trying to convince all parties to come so that everyone will have a chance to share their viewpoints on the controversial topics.

The deputy minister used only the most careful, diplomatic language in discussing the agenda debate. He refused to explicitly criticize either side, despite much prompting to do so by foreign reporters. But he acknowledged that South Africa's role as host has affected the way the government is handling the matter. He admitted that if someone else were hosting the conference, South African leaders would be expressing their own opinions much more loudly and clearly.