- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2001

NEW YORK — African demands for slave-era reparations from the former colonial powers are threatening to paralyze an upcoming U.N. conference on racism.
Most European governments reject the call for restitution and are seeking to tone down the African Groups suggested language of apology, which dominated a recent meeting to prepare for the World Conference Against Racism to be held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8.
Many poor nations are hoping to use the Durban conference to win increased funding from wealthy industrialized countries for development, saying that the slave trade devastated their countries, and that those who benefited from the practice should make amends.
The rift has grown so intractable that several diplomats in New York and Geneva warn that the issue could pit North against South and white against black in a graphic confrontation that benefits no one.
"We want something forward-looking and practical," said a British official. "Something that will reinvigorate the existing international mechanisms and promote tolerance. Its frustrating that the agenda is being narrowed."
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, whose term was extended for one year Thursday by the U.N. General Assembly, has declined to take a position on the matter, her aides say.
But at a news conference last week, she called for "a collective recognition of the terrible exploitation and violations of human rights and crimes against humanity of the past."
"To deal with the future, you have to close [the chapter] on the past," Mrs. Robinson said. "We think that the conference will not have dealt with all the problems of racism if it does not do that."
A proposal submitted by the African Group and joined by Cuba, among others, calls slavery a crime against humanity and calls for former slave-trading nations to make unspecified restitution.
But Western European nations — including several directly involved in centuries of slave trading — reject any mention of crimes against humanity, saying that is a modern legal term that cannot be applied retroactively to events that began in the mid-1600s.
Many European and North American diplomats and historians also note that African leaders themselves participated in the slave trade, capturing tribal rivals and civilians and selling them to Arab and European slave traders.
At the preparatory committee meetings in Geneva that concluded last week, several nongovernmental advocacy groups demanded compensation, such as aid for development, but without the strings attached by the International Monetary Fund and similar world lenders.
Several of the African Groups 53 members share that view, while others, including South Africa, are more moderate in their goals.
"The member states of the United Nations must be creative in looking at ways and means," said Jeanette Ndhlovu, South Africas deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who stresses the need for negotiation and national solutions, not sweeping declarations.
"Slavery was abhorrent, a crime against humanity, and it caused a lot of suffering, including underdevelopment, where it took place," she said.
Northern nations say they acknowledge and regret their role in the trafficking of human beings.
A loose group of Western European states — informally including the United States and Israel, among others — say that to focus on issues that are hundreds of years old detracts from viable efforts to overcome contemporary racism, xenophobia and related prejudices.
"Our goal is that countries could get together and share their experience about what works," said a State Department official.
"Everyone recognizes that racism is an impediment to human rights. The U.S. is definitely interested in that kind of approach, but whether well be able to, were not sure yet. This is an intense period of diplomacy."
A group of 21 diplomats, representing four broad geographic regions, is meeting in Geneva for the next two weeks to clean up the text of a proposed Durban document and, officials say, to try to find common ground on the questions of reparations and responsibility.
Another international preparatory meeting has been scheduled for mid-July to allow diplomats one last chance to resolve knots in the text before the Durban conference.
Failure to resolve the impasse would be tragic, said the ambassador of a nation that was not directly involved with either side of the slave trade. "There is too much important work to do, forward-looking and practical work, to allow this [issue] to derail the conference."
The working draft of the anti-racism declaration calls for the "provision of effective remedies, recourse, redress, [compensatory] and other measures at the national, regional and international levels."
The definition, or even inclusion, of the word "compensatory" is disputed by some participants.
"That could mean almost anything," said the State Department official, who declined to be identified. "Were not big on that one. Thats no secret."
The Durban conference — formally called the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance — is expected to produce a declaration of principles regarding racism, as well as a program of action to eliminate prejudice.
Both documents are likely to be drafted by consensus and will not be legally binding.
One Western official suggested last week that the focus on compensation was only in part about increased financial assistance. Another motive, she suggested, was to divert attention from internal human rights abuses — the treatment of indigenous populations and refugees, anti-Semitism, caste systems and self-determination, to name but a few.
"Some people are happy to bang on about colonialism, but if you broaden the discussion to self-determination, its a whole different kettle of fish," she said. "Essentially its about shaping the debate that makes it more comfortable for people to overlook their own problems."
But several former colonial powers are clearly uncomfortable with the turn the conference has taken.
"I dont think anyone will boycott the conference," said the British official. "But I do think you will be able to tell a lot by looking at the size and [rank] of the delegations."


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