DURBAN, South Africa — The World Conference Against Racism failed to meet its Friday deadline for issuing a blueprint to combat discrimination, remaining mired in controversies over the Middle East and slavery.
For a week, as delegates from around the world gathered here to discuss racism as a root cause of poverty and oppression, the focus instead has been the bitter dispute between Palestinians and Israelis and the transatlantic slave trade of the past. Negotiations over those issues were expected to continue at least until this morning, when a crucial partner in the discussions, European Union President Louis Michel, is scheduled to leave for home.
"I have some hours to find a solution," Michel, Belgium's foreign minister, said Friday night. "But I am not a miracle man. We did our best."
Negotiators have been struggling over the wording of the conference's final declaration and its action plan, with Palestinians pushing for language critical of Israel and many delegates seeking from Western nations some form of apology and reparations for past slavery.
Of the two issues, it appeared that the row over the Middle East might be resolved first. Officials said the Palestinian delegates were considering language in the declaration that referred to their people's "plight" without labeling Israel a racist state. But the Islamic community made clear that acceptance of the wording--if finalized--would come under protest and only to avert the complete collapse of the conference.
"There is no solution," Nasser Kidwa, a key member of the Palestinian negotiating team, said of reports that an agreement had been finalized. "We did propose some modest proposals, but the European Union said they are unacceptable."
Resolving the "legacy of the past," as officials here have called the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, was proving more difficult.
Closed-door negotiations focused on such hairsplitting matters as whether the U.S. and Europe should "apologize" for past actions--as African nations want--or would express "deep regret." Talks also bogged down on whether the West would commit to reparations, perhaps forgive debts owed by African nations, or just give general support to the notion of aid to the continent. And negotiators were caught up in debate over whether Europe would agree that slavery is--and was--a crime against humanity.
"We think the Europeans are not serious," said Fode Dabor, a member of the African negotiating team. "They are saying we are not responsible for anything. We cannot accept that. That is the problem."
Michel said the European Union's 15 nations were united and committed to coming up with a resolution to the slavery issue. But he said that while the bloc was willing to acknowledge that contemporary slavery is a "crime against humanity," such issues as colonialism should be viewed in their historical context. And despite Europe's recognition of the tragedies of slavery and colonialism, he said, it is time for Africa to examine its responsibilities for contemporary problems.
"Of course we have remorse," he said at a late-night news conference Friday. "But you [Africa] are strong enough now to take on your own destiny and not always search for your failures in the past. . . . Try also to make an effort to see in your own countries' responsibilities for human rights, for democracy."
The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance opened in this Indian Ocean port city Aug. 31, with more than 6,000 delegates from governments and international organizations.
Even before the first government delegates arrived, a preceding forum of nongovernmental organizations bogged down in debate over the Middle East, with much of its work for causes as diverse as the needs of indigenous people and migrant workers being overshadowed. On Thursday, more than 70 nongovernmental organizations from around the world condemned that forum and distanced themselves from its final report.
The World Conference Against Racism got off to a similar start, with the Arab community insisting that the final declaration and action plan also label Israel a racist state. The U.S. and Israel walked out of the convention Monday, undermining its credibility. The EU assumed the lead in negotiations, with South African officials interceding with compromise proposals that were intended to split the differences.
By late Friday, it appeared that all sides in the dispute were taking great pains not to appear obstructionist and responsible for causing the event to fail.
"I think there still is a chance to achieve a consensus," Michel said. "I can also say it will be very difficult. We will not be prisoner of principles that are not our own principles."
For the Islamic community, acquiescing to the European-backed proposal on the Middle East would be a bitter pill. Supporters of the Palestinians were trying to figure out the best way to express their frustration. An Iranian ambassador said he expected the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group representing Islamic states, to issue a statement criticizing the final agreement.
"The Palestinians will still be quite unhappy, and they will express this strongly in the plenary," said an ambassador familiar with the negotiations. "But they will not object. My understanding is they will make a gesture of goodwill."
Once, and if, final agreements are reached, the wording will have to be reviewed by the drafting committees and then submitted, along with the documents, to the full conference for a vote.