U.N. Race Conference On Thin Ice

From left: Porl Thompson, Jason Cooper, Robert Smith and Simon Gallup of The Cure pose backstage on the sixth and final night of a series of concerts and events in aid of Teenage Cancer Trust organised by musician Roger Daltrey, at the Royal Albert Hall on April 1, 2006 in London, England.
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A U.N. conference against racism is in danger of being derailed by arguments over the term Holocaust and disputes over reparations for slavery and colonialism, Amnesty International said Wednesday.

In meetings preparing for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to be held in Durban, South Africa, member states have argued over whether Holocaust should refer specifically to Nazi atrocities against the Jews, or genocide in general, Amnesty's international program director Claudio Cordone said Wednesday.

Preparations for the Aug. 31 opening have also been bogged down by disputes over how to deal with the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism, he said.

"Because of such disputes countries may decide to downgrade their level of participation in the conference or not attend, and there is a fear that the conference may fail to agree on a common platform.

"If at all that happens the world will have missed a unique opportunity to make a difference in the fight against racism, letting down the victims of discrimination in a spectacular way," Cordone said.

Fears about the success of the U.N. conference were raised as Amnesty launched a report Wednesday on "Racism and the Administration of Justice" at a press briefing in central London.

The conference, to be held between Aug. 31 and Sept. 7, is part of a continuing U.N. effort to combat racism. Two international sessions have already taken place in Geneva to prepare for the conference, at which governments drew up a provisional agenda, and several regional seminars have been held.

According to Amnesty, time has been wasted debating whether or not "holocaust" should be capitalized — an issue raised by several Arab countries.

"This has been debated repeatedly over several sessions," Cordone said. "The controversy over this issue is insensitive to the feelings of survivors of the Holocaust and is of no use to the fight against racism. They are creating a climate of division that risks undermining all aspects of the conference."

Last month, a two-week meeting in Geneva ended in deadlock over whether countries that prospered from slavery and colonialism should formally apologize for the suffering they caused — and pay compensation.

Africans want both, but Western nations led by the United States, Britain and Canada are resisting. Such arguments should be resolved in a different forum, Cordone argued.

The U.N. admitted Wednesday there was a danger that the conference could be derailed, but said there was enough "common ground" between member states for it to be a success.

"There has to be a leap of political will. Countries are going to have to seize this opportunity to tackle these very important issues," said Jose Luis Diaz, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights — which is acting as the preparatory committee for the world conference.

"I think people around the worlwon't forgive countries for missing such an opportunity."

The Amnesty International report published Wednesday examines racism in the justice systems of several countries, including Rwanda, Turkey, the United States of America, Saudi Arabia and Britain.

"In the U.S.A., studies have consistently indicated that race — particularly of the murder victim — is a key factor in determining who is sentenced to death," the report said.

"Blacks and whites are the victims of murder in almost equal numbers, yet more that 80 percent of prisoners executed since 1977 were convicted for the murder of a white person."

The report, which Amnesty described as a "contribution" to next month's conference, also examined the treatment of Aborigines in Australia, the Kurdish community in Turkey and Palestinians in Israel.

A preparatory meeting for the U.N. conference will reconvene in Geneva on July 30 until Aug. 10.

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