Africa and Europe deadlocked over demand for reparations

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The Independent Online

Within hours of American and Israeli delegations boarding planes to leave Durban in protest at declarations against Zionism, the world conference on racism was again in jeopardy yesterday over the issue of reparations for slavery.

Last night Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the South African Foreign Minister, called a meeting with the African consultative group to try to salvage the conference. In what one European diplomat described as a "declaration of war", the Africans had earlier said they would accept nothing less than a legally binding pledge of reparations for slavery and colonialism. European diplomats said the hardening stance of the Africans, backed by African Americans, had engendered a sense of solidarity among European Union delegates.

Earlier in the week-long conference, Britain and three other former maritime powers ­ Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands ­ had become isolated through their opposition to using the word "apology".

Last night, the moderate stance adopted by South Africa and Senegal ­ for an expression of "regret" and reparations in the form of debt relief and directed aid ­ had lost out to a militant lobby led initially by Zimbabwe, but backed by an increasing number of countries including Namibia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Patrick Chinamasa, the Zimbabwean Justice Minister, said in his speech to the conference on Monday that the final declaration and plan of action expected on Friday should call on former colonisers to take "full legal responsibility for their actions", acknowledge the slave trade and colonialism as crimes against humanity, and place a legal obligation on countries, individuals and corporations to pay reparations.

One diplomat close to the camp backing Zimbabwe said the hard line had come about because the resolution from a pre-conference meeting had been "tampered with" and toned down to match South Africa's and Senegal's stance. An African American delegate said his lobby was so furious with the US, "which used Zionism to treat this conference with contempt", that it had thrown its weight behind the most hardline countries.

Mr Chinamasa, the Zimbabwean delegate, said: "In some quarters it is argued that slavery, the slave trade and colonialism cannot be branded crimes against humanity because, when those evils took place, the phrase had not come into vogue. But when the phrase was first used at the Nuremberg trials it was being retroactively applied to crimes committed as far back as 1938.''

Last night, while Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands seemed to have achieved EU agreement over avoiding the use of "apology" in favour of "sorrow" or "regret", diplomats said the issue was now largely academic. "The mood is sombre," said one EU diplomat, "because reparations are unacceptable to us but we cannot allow this conference to fail."