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Controversies Threaten World Conference Against Racism - 2001-08-14

The United Nations is continuing negotiations to resolve several issues threatening to sink the World Conference against Racism, scheduled to begin later this month in Durban, South Africa. Preparations for the conference ended Friday without agreement on issues relating to Zionism and reparations for slavery.

Negotiators have completed two-thirds of the draft language that will be sent to Durban. It is the remaining third that could potentially doom the World Conference against Racism.

The United States has threatened to boycott the conference if slavery reparations or discussions equating Zionism with racism are on the Durban agenda. Israel too has said it might not attend if Arab countries persist in equating Zionism with racism. A spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Center, Jose Dias, says a resolution equating Zionism with racism is no longer on the conference agenda. "What is being debated now," he said, "is how to take account of what is happening in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians. How that is going to figure in the documents that will come out of Durban. But I think Zionism as racism will not be part of that discussion. That has been one of the outcomes of the meeting here in Geneva over the past two weeks."

Mr. Dias says the United Nations settled the question of Zionism as a form of racism in 1991, saying the two were not related. He says it would be inappropriate to re-open the issue in Durban. But he does acknowledge it might be difficult to find a compromise on how to discuss the violence in the Middle East without offending one or more nations.

Informal negotiations to resolve the thorny issue of reparations for slavery and colonialism are continuing. Many African countries say they should be compensated for the sufferings of their people during the years of slavery and colonialism. The United States and European Union fear any such deal could expose them to huge lawsuits. Mr. Dias says negotiators are trying to figure a way out of this problem. "Many of the delegations taking part are now looking for some common ground which would imply a solemn recognition of what happened, how it affected those countries, particularly in Africa," Mr. Dias said. "And how to encourage assistance to those countries by securing development assistance to help them overcome the effects of practices of slavery and practices of some aspects of colonialism."

Mr. Dias says the United States and Israel have indicated they would await the outcome of the negotiations before deciding whether they will be present in Durban.