Delegates Still at Loggerheads as Racism Meeting Nears Close

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With less than 24 hours to go before the scheduled conclusion of the World Conference Against Racism, delegates were still at odds Thursday over how to resolve issues concerning the Middle East and the transatlantic slave trade.

As positions on all sides appeared to harden, delegates began laying the groundwork for a graceful exit to a gathering that has proved bitter and divisive. Although the eight-day conference has been credited with giving a platform to marginalized groups, that work has been overshadowed by intense battles over two hot-button issues: Palestinians’ attempts to label Israel a racist state, and blacks’ quest for some kind of recognition and restitution for the slave trade.

With the end near, the head of the drafting committee said that if consensus cannot be achieved on these controversial issues, which had been the goal, elements of a final document could be approved by a two-thirds vote. That would make it possible to adopt a final declaration and an action plan without unanimity.


“The Europeans are blocking things,” said Salman Harfy, the Palestinian Authority envoy to South Africa. “They are very negative. They are saying, ‘Take it or leave it.’ They are blocking everything.”

Similar feelings were expressed by delegates working on the slavery issue. “It looks like the Europeans don’t care about the Africans, or the Arabs,” a delegate involved in those negotiations said.

European Union spokesman Koen Vervaeke acknowledged that the EU is taking a hard line on both fronts. He said the working compromise on the Middle East was disappointing because “it is a minimum response to our concerns” but nevertheless represented “progress.”

The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance opened its doors a week ago after more than a year of planning that sought to narrow the agenda to achievable goals.

But from the moment it began, the conference became a forum for individual advocacy rather than consensus. The U.S. and Israel, reluctant to attend in the first place, further undermined the credibility of the event when they pulled out midway through.

For a time, the EU also threatened to withdraw its 15 member states--along with 13 other EU candidate states--but by the end of the day Thursday, that appeared to be more of a negotiating tactic than a valid warning.


On the issue of the Middle East, delegates stripped all convention documents of any mention of Israel after the U.S. pulled out. On Thursday, South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Zuma proposed language that sought to strike a balance by expressing deep concern over “anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world.” But the wording also addressed the “plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” and called for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes--two key points of contention.

The Palestinians rejected the proposal, while the Europeans sent it back to their capitals for review. If no compromise is reached, Palestinian representatives said they may ask conference delegates to vote on earlier language that referred to Israel’s “racist practices.”

“We are ready to go to a vote,” Harfy said.

On the issue of slavery, there was even less progress. African delegates and those of African descent concur on the need for an apology and the desire to see slavery deemed a crime against humanity. But they cannot agree on whether to call for reparations. Those who do agree on the need for reparations cannot agree on what form they should take.

European nations, like the U.S., have been reluctant to issue individual apologies, fearing states would be opened to lawsuits. Instead, the West has backed a general apology, supported labeling contemporary slavery a crime against humanity and, in very general terms, called for funds for African development.

Conference spokeswoman Sue Markham said that if a resolution cannot be cobbled together in time to meet today’s deadline, the U.N. may just stop the clock at midnight and keep working.