U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says one or two issues must not be permitted to block action by a United Nations conference that is seeking ways to combat racism. Mr. Annan spoke at a news conference at the conference in Durban, South Africa.
Mr. Annan says disagreement over the Middle East and reparations for slavery could, in his words, derail the conference. He warns that continued quarreling might keep the delegates from doing what they came here for.
But he also says he senses a willingness to be flexible and work for the right language, in other words, consensus on the final conference declaration. "I think the delegations are making genuine and serious efforts to find a compromise solution, clean up the text, come up with a text that will speak to every community, every government and every group that feels discriminated against, and hopefully with a concrete plan of action that can be helpful to governments, NGO's [non-governmental organizations], and societies when they return home," he said.
There are faint glimmers of a breakthrough on the Middle East issue, which many delegates believe will be the more difficult of the two issues to solve.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat harshly criticized Israel, as most onlookers had expected. But what may be more significant is what he did not say. He condemned Israeli policies, but did not refer to Israel as an inherently racist state.
The Middle East issue has kept the United States, Canada, and Israel from sending senior officials to the conference. All three nations' delegations are led by lower-level diplomats, rather than their foreign ministers.
Mr. Annan told reporters that the United States remains engaged in efforts to solve the impasse over the declaration language relating to the Middle East. He said he has spoken by phone with Secretary of State Colin Powell, and has met in person with the head of the U.S. delegation in Durban, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Southwick. "He [Mr. Southwick] was concerned that we have a language that is fair, acceptable and a language that does not pick on Israel, which is the position of the U.S. government," he said. "But they are here, willing to engage and hoping that we will make progress, we will get a document that is credible and will allow everyone to participate fully."
Mr. Annan said there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to build a consensus. As the wrangling continues, heads of national delegations make speeches to the plenary session, carrying on with the other business of the conference.