National Interests Prevail as Racism Conference Ends

«Each Kept Trying to Confess a Neighbor´s Sins»

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DURBAN, South Africa, SEPT. 9, 2001 ( The World Conference Against Racism was heralded as the most important summit of its kind in history. But it ended Saturday with documents that simply sought to guard the interests of the 160 participant nations.

«In practice, each one of the delegations kept trying to confess a neighbor´s sins, instead of its own,» said Riccardo Cascioli, who covered the conference for Vatican Radio. «The scene was anything but edifying.»

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Vatican representative at the conference, said that, privately, many diplomats expressed agreement with the Catholic Church´s proposals. Yet when they addressed the assembly, they expressed different positions, according to directives from their respective countries, he said.

«In the end, every state came here to Durban to defend its own interests,» said the archbishop, who is also the Vatican´s permanent observer at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva. His comments appeared today in the Italian newspaper Avvenire.

The conference ended with the adoption of two documents: a declaration of principles, and an action plan to combat discrimination.

Middle East

An indication of the pre-eminence of national interests at the conference was the heated debate over the Middle East, which prompted the United States and Israel to withdraw from the meeting Sept. 3, the fourth day of the event.

Late in the summit, Syria asked for the inclusion of a petition accusing Israel of racism. The final document, however, avoids condemning Israel for its Palestinian policy, despite the Arabs´ hopes, and urges remembrance of the Holocaust of the Jewish people.

The document recognizes the Palestinian people´s inalienable right to self-determination and the establishment of an independent state, as well as the security of all the countries of the region, including Israel.

Canada, Australia, Syria and Iran, among other countries, expressed profound reservations about such statements in the text of the declaration.

Slavery and indemnification

The issue of slavery was the thorniest for the diplomats, pitting European and African countries against one another.

The final document recognizes «that slavery is a crime against humanity, and should always have been recognized as such.» But the European Union states refused to include any kind of petition for forgiveness. There is an expression of «regret,» but not of apology.

Regarding the question of indemnification of African countries for slavery, their representatives gave up this request in exchange for a commitment by the industrialized nations to allocate more funds for the economic and social development of Africa.

The Vatican proposed that countries that benefited from slavery should make up for these crimes with significant gestures, as an effective way to purify the memory and establish new relations with the victim countries.

The proposal called for the step taken by John Paul II when he publicly asked for forgiveness for the faults of the Church´s children in this matter, a step that the European countries did not have the courage to take, especially Great Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. The United States adopted a similar position to that of these countries, before it withdrew from the conference.

India and the «untouchables»

Another example of the primacy of national interests at the conference was India. It succeeded in not having the problem of the lower castes of society addressed, especially the «dalits» or «untouchables,» whose human rights are flagrantly violated.

To achieve its objective, India gave its full support to the nonaligned bloc. It even won the support of Fidel Castro, in open contradiction to a fiery speech of the Cuban leader before the assembly.

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