Slavery Reparations, Mideast Politics Dog Preparations For U.N. Racism Conference

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - South African leaders this week promised the U.S. that they will push for a landmark international conference on racism in August to be "forward looking," rather than dwell on the past, amid concerns Western countries will be pressured to pay compensation for slavery.

Preparations for the U.N. conference against "racism, xenophobia and related intolerance," to be held in the South African port city of Durban in late August, have been marked by serious differences over compensation and several other issues, particularly a push by Muslim nations to have Israeli policies branded racist.

The U.S. has warned that the level of its participation will depend on these issues being resolved.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week that "the level and the strength of our representation depends on whether we think the conference is going to be productive or not, and how some of these issues figure or don't figure on the agenda."

He would not be drawn on whether the U.S. was considering a boycott, but said "the final
decision will be made on who [will attend] closer to the conference."

This week South African President Thabo Mbeki held talks with President Bush. Mbeki's foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said afterwards the South African delegation had agreed to lobby the conference participants to focus on "present and future problems" relating to racism.

Problems emerged during a series of regional preparatory conferences. African nations pushed the idea that countries which benefited from slavery should apologize and pay reparations.

For Britain and other former colonial powers in Europe, the idea they should pay compensation for slavery two centuries after the practice was abolished throughout the British Empire is absurd.

The U.S., too, is firmly opposed to such a step.

"Demands for financial reparations and a formal apology would do nothing to address racism and discrimination today," Boucher said. "The conference should address current problems."

Reports from South Africa say the Mbeki delegation had told U.S. officials its view on compensation was that this could take the form of development aid or debt relief programs.

As the host, but not the convener of the conference, South Africa was in no position to remove items from the agenda, but would use its influence to push for a "forward-looking" outcome, Dlamini-Zuma said.

"It is important that discussions around that issue address present and future problems rather than to try to find out who should be compensated from 200 years ago."

Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Thursday that some European countries "admitted they had serious problems" with the question of compensation for slavery.

African countries had raised the issue, she said, and "it will be for the delegates to decide how it is addressed."


Also problematic for the U.S. have been attempts by the Arab-Muslim bloc to politicize the Durban conference by castigating Israel for its policies.

At a regional preparatory conference in Tehran last February, delegates adopted a draft declaration claiming that Israel's existence was based on "racist" policies, including the "racist law of return."

The draft recalled the controversial "Zionism is racism" resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly under Arab instigation in 1975, eventually repealed in 1991.

Zionism, the assertion that Jews are entitled to a national homeland, is the basis for Israel's existence. The law of return states that any Jew migrating to Israel can become a citizen of the state. As this discriminates against non-Jews, some critics call it racist.

The Tehran draft document further described Israel's policies in the disputed territories as "a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity [and] a form of genocide."

A source at the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, said Friday other matters of deep concern to Israelis and Jews were attempts the remove from the draft references to "anti-Semitism" as a manifestation of racism.

Moreover, a reference to "the Holocaust" had been replaced by "holocausts," the source said, in a move aimed at minimizing the systematic murder by the Nazis of six million Jews by equating it with other atrocities.

One observer, former director of international policy research for B'nai Brith, William Korey, noted recently that Israel was the only country singled out in the Tehran document, and that no other regional draft specifically denounced any country by name.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has discussed Washington's concerns with U.N. commissioner Robinson.

Boucher said Powell had made it clear the U.S. wanted the conference to look into ways of improving people's lives and alleviating the problems caused by discrimination, and "that it not get bogged down in extraneous issues, like the status of Israel or antiquated notions of Zionism."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow