DURBAN, South Africa — European negotiators at the U.N. conference on racism agreed to a carefully crafted statement Friday that they termed an apology for slavery, a move aimed at fending off lawsuits seeking reparations.
But delegates remained deadlocked beyond the conference’s scheduled closing Friday night, struggling over how to address the Middle East conflict and African demands for some kind of compensation for slavery.
Formal negotiations wound down around midnight and were to resume later today. Officials said informal talks would likely continue through the night.
The chief Arab negotiator denied there had been a breakthrough on the Middle East but held open the possibility the session would be extended to try and reach a compromise.
The European Union agreed earlier Friday to a compromise calling on those responsible for slavery to find ways to restore the dignity of victims, resolving a key issue deadlocking the World Conference Against Racism.
The statement amounted to an apology, said EU spokesman Koen Vervaeke, but would block any lawsuits seeking reparations. While the conference’s documents are not legally binding, once adopted all countries promise to fulfill the applicable pledges made.
African countries still were pushing for slavery and colonialism to be labeled "crimes against humanity" and for Western countries to pay reparations.
"There was a breakthrough on the notion of an apology," said Vervaeke. "In the way it’s drafted now there can’t be any legal consequences."
The European Union has been unwilling to issue an apology because it felt that would leave it open to lawsuits.
The text on slavery to which the parties agreed to on Friday read:
"The World Conference Against Racism further notes that some have taken the initiative of regretting, or expressing remorse, or presenting apologies, and calls on all those who have not yet contributed to restoring the dignity of the victims to find appropriate ways to do so, and to this end we appreciate those countries that have done so."
But the issues of reparations and declaring the slave trade a crime against humanity remained stumbling blocks, said Zimbabwean Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa.
"They cannot deny the slave trade was a crime against humanity," Chinamasa said, adding that the reparations issue was still the biggest problem. "They are more worried about their wallets than moral issues."
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