Anti-racism delegates get warning on Israel, go into negotiations
GENEVA (AP) – Under threat of a U.S. boycott, delegates from more than 100 nations began a final effort to salvage the World Conference Against Racism – going quickly into talks Monday after being warned by the United Nations’ top human rights official that Arabs must abandon attempts to equate Zionism with racism.
”The United Nations has already dealt with this issue at great length,” Mary Robinson, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the opening of a two-week session trying to bridge divisions ahead of the racism conference starting Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa.
She noted that a decade ago the U.N. General Assembly had repealed its 1975 resolution denouncing Zionism, the movement that led to the re-establishment and support of a Jewish homeland in biblical lands.
”I believe that it is inappropriate to reopen this issue in any form here and that anyone who seeks to do so is putting the success of the Durban conference at risk,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s boss, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said in Washington that preparations for the conference had ”opened up deep fissures on a number of sensitive issues, such as the legacy of slavery and colonialism, and the situation in the Middle East.”
Israeli-Palestinian tensions led to the proposal from Arab countries and Iran to insert the anti-Zionism language in the draft of the conference’s final document.
The Bush administration said Friday it would boycott the conference if the Zionism language remains.
Last week in Geneva, negotiators trying to find a way to enforce the global ban on biological weapons were shocked by a U.S. announcement that it was throwing in the towel on the germ warfare talks.
Robinson and Annan were clearly trying to make sure that Durban avoids a similar walkout, and the speed with which the delegates entered into negotiations indicated that conference organizers were moving to iron out differences if possible.
”If this conference is to succeed, there is an acute need for common ground,” said Annan. ”The conference must help heal old wounds without reopening them.”
Robinson departed from her prepared speech to say she had great sympathy for the Palestinians.
”I am acutely aware of the suffering of the Palestinian people and dismayed at the continuing toll of deaths and injuries on a daily basis,” she said.
Conference organizers have intended to be inclusive, but one of the first acts of the session Monday was to exclude the International Gay and Lesbian Association from the list of accredited non-governmental organizations.
The vote was 43-43 with 27 abstentions. Under conference rules ties equal no votes.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also said the United States regards as another nonstarter the African demand that countries that prospered from slavery and colonization should apologize – and pay compensation – for the suffering they caused.
Annan said, however, the conference should be able to discuss historical wrongs, even though its focus should be on the future.
”We need to acknowledge the tragedies of the past, but not become captive to them.”
The calls for compensation have grown against the background of the United States’ pressuring Germany to reimburse Nazi victims and Switzerland to compensate heirs of Holocaust victims for money that lay dormant in bank accounts after World War II.
The two-week negotiating session beginning Monday had to be squeezed into the month leading up to Durban because what was supposed to be the final planning meeting in May ended in deadlock.
U.N. officials say that if the Zionism issue is removed during the Geneva negotiating session, it is unlikely to resurface in Durban, where a vote would be required to put it back into the final document.
Robinson said she is encouraged because she senses greater political will to see the conference succeed.
”There have been a lot of negotiations behind closed doors over the last few weeks, and I have been very encouraged by the high-level political engagement” from U.S. and European officials, she said.
Robinson, a former president of Ireland, said there are limits to what a U.N. conference can do, but Durban could make a significant contribution to eliminating ”an evil that has survived too long.”
”A serious document that explains the nature of racism in the modern world and that sets out the strategies to combat it would be a major step forward,” she said.
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