European nations crossed a huge historical and psychological barrier last night when they agreed to apologise for the slave trade provided that Africa drops a call for financial reparations and for an admission that slavery was a crime against humanity.
The breakthrough came in a rancorous UN conference on racism in Durban. Koen Vervaeke, a spokesman for the Belgian Foreign Minister, Louis Michel, who is leading the European Union delegation, said: "There was a breakthrough on the notion of an apology."
The compromise text noted some countries "regretting, or expressing remorse, or presenting apologies" for slavery and colonialism. When asked if this amounted to an apology by the European Union, Mr Vervaeke said: "Yes."
The EU had been unwilling to issue an apology because it felt that would leave it open to potential lawsuits. However, the agreed-to text had resolved that issue, he said. "In the way it's drafted now there can't be any legal consequences," he said.
Despite this, legal claims for billions of pounds by the descendants of slaves in Africa and America have already been filed in the US and more are expected to follow in time.
South Africa's Director of Foreign Affairs, Dr Sipho Pityana, said European nations had agreed to offer an apology for slavery "from a moral perspective".
Mr Vervaeke confirmed there was "a breakthrough on the issues of the past through the introduction of the notion of an apology". However, he added that this deal, which was agreed by the 15 EU nations, including the big former colonial powers, was on the understanding that the issue of financial reparations and the notion of slavery as a crime against humanity were shelved.
Some African states have demanded reparations for nearly 400 years of the slave trade, saying the wholesale upheaval of up to 12 million Africans to the Americas robbed the continent of its human wealth.
The EU and America have steadfastly refused to accept any wording implying that there is a need for compensation by them or that modern- day aid to the Third World is part of an historical obligation, and that using the term "crime against humanity" for an historical phenomenon is anachronistic.
The draft text argued that the conference "notes that some have taken the initiative of regretting, or expressing remorse, or presenting apologies, and calls on all those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so, and to this end we appreciate those countries that have done so".
The remainder of the communiqué was still proving difficult last night, and delegates were meeting again this morning in a desperate attempt to reach a breakthrough. The draft produced by the South African secretariat included a reference to development assistance being a form of redress. There were further difficulties over the text on the Middle East, a subject that caused America and Israel to walk out of the conference.
Mr Vervaeke said Mr Michel was "surprised" by the South Africans' choice of wording on slavery, adding: "This is part of a text, it is a package and you cannot extract one element."
Another European diplomat argued: "The South African text does move in the direction of what the EU would accept in some ways, but in others it is harder. It is premature to talk of a text that we can sign."
The agreement among the 15 nations to apologise in principle was an important step that may have profound political, social and legal consequences.
On Thursday, Namibia's Herero people said they had brought a $2bn (£1.4bn) suit in an American court against three firms for alleged German colonial atrocities committed a century ago.Reuse content