WASHINGTON – African leaders at the World Conference Against Racism on Saturday asked for Western countries to apologize for the destruction caused by colonialism and slavery but were divided on calls for reparations.
An apology would recognize the wrong that was committed against Africans and constitute a promise that such an atrocity would never happen again, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said.
With an apology, "the issue of reparations cease to be a rational option," he said during his formal address to the conference Saturday morning.
Later Saturday, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned what he called Israel's racist practices but declined to label Israel a racist state, an apparent compromise in how Palestinians would choose to condemn Israel at the world conference against racism.
The speech came a day after the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced that Arafat had agreed to lobby to have language removed from a draft declaration that called Israel a racist state and condemned Zionism as racism.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reiterated Saturday that the Zionism clause had been removed from the declaration.
"The question of Zionism versus racism is dead," he said.
In his main speech to the conference, Arafat also did not mention the word Zionism, but did say the Israeli occupation "embodies racial discrimination in its ugliest forms."
"Israeli occupation ... represents a dangerous and flagrant violation of (the U.N.) charter, international human rights and human law. The Israeli occupation is a new and advanced type of apartheid," Arafat said. "Israel, the occupation authority, has pursued policies of racial discrimination."
The conference has been marked by controversy over how to deal with the legacy of slavery and colonialism as well as efforts to condemn Israel.
The Arab League met Saturday morning to coordinate its position on the final declaration. Amr Mousa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, said the section condemning Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and the recognition of the Holocaust were both open to negotiation.
"There are racist policies and practices by Israel and they have to be addressed (just) as Israel wants us to address the problem of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and so on, so its a package."
The White House, which has called parts of a draft declaration anti-Semitic, said American diplomats would leave the conference if the provisions condemning Israel weren't removed.
As the Arab leaders met, several African heads of state addressed the conference on the issue of slavery and reparations.
Cape Verde President Pedro Verona Rodrigues Peres called for voluntary reparations and financial support for Africa.
But Obasanjo said reparations could split Africa from black people living in "the diaspora," and an apology would suffice.
"Apology is intrinsic in the healing process," he said. "Apology closes the door to bitterness and anger ... and does not promote any reprisals and litigation."
As the leaders spoke, conference committees worked behind the scenes on the wording of a final declaration to be adopted at the end of the eight-day U.N. summit.
Almost a year into the Palestinian uprising, Arab nations have pushed to make Israel the main issue at the conference.
Jackson, the American civil rights leader, said he had urged Arafat to drop his support for a summit declaration that would attack Israel as a racist state and equate Zionism with racism.
Zionism, the religious and philosophical underpinning of the movement that founded Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, has also come under attack in street demonstrations.
Palestinian officials later accused Jackson of being "overzealous" and said they would still seek condemnation of what they called Israel's "racist practices."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Noam Katz reiterated that his country felt that the racism conference wasn't the appropriate forum to discuss the Mideast conflict.
"We are not here at the conference to discuss, to deal with specific political problems," Katz said. "We are here to create a united front against racism."