DURBAN, South Africa – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the World Conference Against Racism on Friday with a plea for delegates from around the world to look beyond their individual disputes and develop an international plan to combat prejudice.
``If we leave here without agreement, we should give comfort to the worst elements in society,'' Annan told delegates from 166 countries and hundreds of human rights organizations. If an agreement is reached, ``we shall send a signal of hope to brave people who struggle against racism all over the world.''
The conference, taking place in the coastal city of Durban, has been plagued by controversy over efforts to condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and demands for reparations for slavery and colonialism.
``Let us rise above our disagreements. The wrangling has gone on for too long,'' Annan said.
About a dozen heads of state listened to Annan's speech, including Fidel Castro of Cuba, Joseph Kabila of Congo and Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was also at the conference.
However, the United States, Canada and Israel refused to send high-level delegations because of proposed wording in the conference's draft final document they considered anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.
Addressing the controversy, Annan said Jewish suffering during the Holocaust understandably made Jews sensitive to accusations of racism, especially when they coincide with the killing of innocent Jewish civilians.
``Yet we cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a reason why the wrongs done to them — displacement, occupation, blockade, and now extra-judicial killings — should be ignored, whatever label one uses to describe them,'' Annan said to a wave of applause.