The World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance has opened in South Africa after months of haggling over the agenda.

The World Conference Against Racism began with a flourish. Dancers wearing adaptations of traditional costumes from around the world welcomed the delegates to South Africa.

Their grace and beauty stood in stark contrast to the weeks of tension leading up to the conference. Pre-conference talks were preoccupied by a war of words over two issues, reparations for slavery and whether Zionism equals racism.

In his opening speech, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told delegates this conference has been "exceptionally difficult to prepare for" because the issues it deals with "are not ones where consensus is easily found." But he urged them to try. "If we leave here without agreement, we shall give comfort to the worst elements in every society," he said. "But if, after all the difficulties, we can leave with a call to action supported by all, we shall send a signal of hope to brave people struggling against racism all over the world."

On the Middle East, he said the world must never forget that the Jewish people have been victims of discrimination and genocide. "Yet we cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a reason why the wrongs done to them, displacement, occupation, blockade and now extra-judicial killings, should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe them," he said.

Mr. Annan called the conference a test of the international community. He said delegates should not pick on any one country or region, but should admit that all nations have issues of racism and discrimination to address.

On the issue of reparations for slavery and colonialism, he praised countries that have apologized for their past wrongs. He said such a move can help free the present and the future from the shackles of the past. But he also urged the delegates to focus on saving the future from racism and xenophobia.

Mr. Annan said they must not leave the city of Durban without agreeing on practical measures to promote greater harmony and tolerance in all societies.