Slavery Discussions Hit a Snag at Racism Conference

By Mark Klusener | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Durban, South Africa ( - Slavery talks between African and EU countries have run into difficulties at the third World Conference Against Racism here.

The main stumbling block seems to be the insistence by African countries that individual European countries apologize for specific human rights abuses committed during the colonial era.

African countries, lobbied by black American groups, also want debt cancellation and more aid and reparations.

European diplomats at the conference say African nations have hardened their position and that it is not clear how an agreement can be reached.

'Unreasonable demands'

While most EU countries previously were in favor of offering some sort of apology for the transatlantic slave trade, they are now united against what they call unreasonable African demands.

As the host, South Africa wants the conference to succeed but it also wants to show solidarity with other Africans.

The head of the South African delegation, Geraldine Fraser- Moleketi, has played down the divide between the two groups. "We are certainly optimistic that some agreement will be reached. Both sides are making progress and are moving closer," she said.

But the minister was adamant that the issue of specific apologies to individual countries was one which the African delegates are not prepared to abandon.

"The apology is important" Fraser-Moleketi said. It's been granted elsewhere in the world. What message does it send out if African countries are denied that apology?" she said.

Different African countries have interpreted reparations in different ways. Some say increased aid by EU countries would be acceptable, but hardliners -- led by Zimbabwe and Namibia -- want new payments which are specifically acknowledged as being compensation for the slave trade.

Eleven EU countries are prepared to offer an outright apology for slavery, led by Belgium, which currently holds the presidency of the EU and is conducting the official negotiations with the African bloc.

But four others - Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal - are prepared only to express "regret" about the slave trade, without any specific recognition of responsibility.

Britain resists apology

"Britain is the stickiest on this," said a European source close to the talks. "The Belgians are pushing hard to apologize. The majority of EU delegations are willing to make a compromise on an apology, but some are still unable to accept this."

EU delegates agree that they are not prepared to call slavery a crime against humanity, because it could have legal implications and force them to pay reparations. Britain says that even an apology could have damaging consequences.

For the past three days, European officials have been working on the wording of a draft statement on slavery, which reads as follows:

"The European Union profoundly deplores the human suffering, individual and collective, caused by slavery and the slave trade. They are among the most dishonorable and abhorrent chapters in the history of humanity. The [EU] condemns these practices, in the past and present, and regrets the suffering they have caused," it said.

African delegates protested that the draft fell well short of an apology. For a start, it does not acknowledge that European states were at the center of the transatlantic slave trade, or that it began a long history of western abuse of Africa.

The African bloc wants slavery described as a "crime against humanity," "barbaric," of "enormous magnitude" and unparalleled in its dehumanizing of so many people.

Anti-Israel angle

The EU set Wednesday evening as the deadline for making progress in removing anti-Israel language from the proposed conference declaration.

The United States and Israel walked out of the conference on Monday over what they called "offensive language" in the declaration on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

The controversy has overshadowed the conference, which is meant to highlight discrimination around the world, as France warned it would also walk out.

"If the final resolution continues to assimilate Zionism and racism, France and the European Union delegation will consider leaving the conference following consultations with our European partners," a French government spokesman was quoted as saying during a cabinet meeting.

The new draft now being worked on was written by the conference chairman, South African Foreign Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. No details of the new text were available.

The original draft document stated its "deep concern" at the "increase of racist practices of Zionism and anti-Semitism."

It talked of the emergence of "movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas, in particular the Zionist movement, which is based on racial superiority."