The US is threatening to boycott a major United Nations conference on racism next month because Washington strongly objects to two items that could be on the agenda: reparations for slavery, and Zionism.
Washington's critics will take the move as further evidence of what they see as the Bush administration's contempt for international initiatives and treaties.
The meeting, which starts in Durban on 31 August, is being billed as the most important step yet in the fight against racism. It will involve the former colonial powers formally acknowledging their past sins of slavery and exploitation.
But yesterday ambassadors from more than 30 countries were summoned to the State Department to be informed of the US position, and aides of Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, who is travelling in Asia, said that Washington's participation would depend on how the two issues were resolved.
Everything now hinges on this week's preparatory talks in Geneva, to be chaired by Mary Robinson, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights and the moving spirit behind the conference, which will settle the agenda for the Durban conference. Mrs Robinson herself has warned that the inclusion of Zionism – a topic which dates back to a 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism – would doom the conference to failure. In fact the resolution was overturned in 1991, but with their relations with Israel in turmoil, several Arab states want to use the occasion to condemn the Jewish state's treatment of Palestinians as racist, and to brand Zionism as the equivalent of apartheid.
The issue of slavery reparations is scarcely less sensitive. No one objects to the strong condemnation of the slave trade which the conference is likely to adopt. But several African countries want to go further and seek specific financial compensation for their sufferings in colonial times. This in turn would give new impetus to lawsuits that have been threatened by individuals and groups of black Americans in the US. African leaders, including the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, want the conference to lead to an apology, which some observers believe could open the door to compensation claims. Between the 17th and 19th centuries up to 15 million people were forcibly taken from Africa as slaves. Most were taken to the Americas.
The White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President George Bush opposed reparations for slavery. "This conference should be focused on the future, on combating racism that exists in the world today," he said. It was wrong to "try to revisit a very tangled issue, that gets into complications such as what West African nations that were involved in the slave trade should pay reparations".