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U.N. condemns slavery

Nations OK pact that also voices concern for Palestinian plight

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DURBAN, South Africa — After nine days of tumultuous negotiations, nations from around the world agreed Saturday to condemn the slave trade that wrenched millions of Africans from this continent to the Americas and to voice concern for the "plight of the Palestinians under foreign occupation."

The declaration was almost undone at the last minute by the renewed insistence of Arab states and their supporters to single out Israel by name as a racist state. But the final document did not do so, and it was toned down considerably from language that had prompted the United States and Israel to walk out last Monday.

The meeting, the U.N. conference on racism, was intended to celebrate tolerance and diversity, but by week's end it risked becoming an international symbol of divisiveness and intolerance as Arabs and Jews clashed repeatedly over whether to criticize Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Even Saturday, as delegates labored to complete the conference documents, renewed mudslinging threatened to further derail a meeting that was already a day behind schedule.

Negotiators had worked all through the night to come up with the document, which also condemns discrimination against minorities, refugees, women, Gypsies and others. The final language was brokered by European diplomats, who shouldered the guilt of their grandfathers to find language that might restore dignity to the descendants of the enslaved.

The declaration says that slavery and the slave trade "are a crime against humanity and should always have been so." It says states now have a moral obligation to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of slavery, apartheid and genocide and notes that some governments have "taken the initiative to apologize and have paid reparation where appropriate."

The wording fell far short of what had been hoped for by some Africans, who had demanded an explicit apology and specific promises of compensation from Europe to make up for past wrongs.

The Europeans refused to apologize explicitly, fearing they might open themselves up to lawsuits. And they refused to endorse unconditional debt cancellation and foreign aid.

Still, diplomats from Africa and Latin America and black Americans attending the meeting here described the document as an important, if imperfect, atonement for an ugly and neglected chapter of history.

"It is not important to know if we are expressing regret, remorse or apology," said Louis Michel, the foreign minister of Belgium and the leader of the European delegation. "What is important is the recognition of an injustice that we cannot accept."

Amina Mohamed, Kenya's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, admitted that African countries had not gotten all they had hoped for.

"We have an agreement on a document that is far from satisfactory, that is terribly imperfect, but provides a basis to build on," she said. "I think that we owe it to the memory of all those who perished to have the international community declare slavery and the slave trade a crime against humanity. It is a crime against humanity."

But even after the declaration and the plan of action were adopted Saturday afternoon, many delegates left the convention center in this port city as divided as when they arrived.

In the middle of Saturday's meeting, Arab delegates and their supporters renewed their insistence on condemning Israel as a racist state. And European and Canadian officials warned that they too might abandon the process if such language was ultimately included in the conference declaration.

From Jerusalem, Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, called the final document a "bitter failure" for the Arab League.

"The language that was approved in Durban in our absence," the Foreign Ministry said, "is not the best and we opposed it, but it is completely different from the venomous decisions the extremist countries wanted passed."

A State Department spokeswoman said the Bush administration was "looking forward to receiving the final text when it becomes available."

As the conference drew to a close, the administration "appreciated the efforts of others who participated in the conference and who sought to remove the offensive language," the spokeswoman said, reading a formal statement.

"We are disappointed that the conference which could have been an opportunity to address the issues of race became so politicized," she said. "We remain confident our withdrawal from the conference was the correct measure and we hope the decision had some effect on a better but still flawed result."

Earlier in the day, Arab and Muslim officials had agreed to abandon their criticisms of Israel and to accept a declaration that recognized "the plight of the Palestinians under foreign occupation" as well as "the right to security for all states in the region, including Israel."

But in the middle of the meeting Saturday morning, delegates from Pakistan and Syria unexpectedly insisted on adding new language that assailed Israel as a racist, foreign occupying power.

The move stunned officials from across the world, who not long before had burst into applause when South Africa's foreign minister, Nkosazana Zuma, announced that all the contentious issues that have roiled the meeting had been resolved.

The delegates then huddled and conferred and shook their heads in disbelief, as Zuma pleaded with the Arab and other Muslim delegates to find a way to accept their original agreement.

"We are really trying to get to the close of this conference and trying to get something out of this conference which can be used to push back the front of racism and racial discrimination," Zuma said. "All of us should be focused on not doing anything that would force this conference to collapse at this very late hour."

The Muslim delegates said they had agreed to abandon their criticisms of Israel because they did not want to threaten the success of the conference or their solidarity with "with the peoples of Africa and peoples of African descent" who stood to benefit from it. But they were clearly not fully satisfied with the final document.

"It fails to condemn the discriminatory policies and practices of Israel, the occupying power," officials from the Organization of Islamic Countries said. "The text does not adequately reflect the essence and the magnitude of the tragedy and the untold sufferings of the Palestinian people."