Press Release

3 August 2001


Participating in the press conference held at the Palais des Nations on Friday, 3 August by members of the Eminent Persons Group were Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland; Emeka Anyaoku, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth; Garth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia; Najma Heptulla, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, former President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace of the Vatican; Soheib Bencheikh el Hocine, Grand Mufti of Marseilles; David Lange, former Prime Minister of New Zealand; Federico Mayor, former Director-General of UNESCO; and Nafis Sadik, former Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the World Conference. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson moderated the press conference.

MARY ROBINSON, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said she believed that the presence of the Group of Eminent Persons had re-energized the work of the Preparatory Committee. The Group had expressed broad agreement on the fundamental importance of the World Conference in Durban and had reminded participants of the difficulties. Cardinal Etchegaray had noted that 'racism is more live than ever, it has mysteriously failed to heal'. The past and the process of healing was one of the issues that needed to be addressed. Dr. Sadik had said that the Durban Conference could not heal everything. The reaction that she had received from the floor during the round table was that this had been a very helpful opportunity to go back to the wider frame of the importance of the issues that would be addressed in Durban. There had been focus on some of the problem areas, and now they had a holistic approach.

A question was asked about how the Group of Eminent Persons saw that the Preparatory Committee could emerge from the wrangling over various issues.

NAFIS SADIK, Former Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the World Conference, said she dared say that there now seemed to be some movement towards a dialogue in the Working Groups. Many delegations were concerned about the situation in the Middle East and while they recognized that solutions might lie elsewhere, they felt that the Conference had to address it. She did not think she should say more on that. On compensation and slavery, there was a loosening of positions or movement in the different groups, although they were still far on agreement. The Group of Eminent Persons had addressed some of these issues and might have some influence on some of the formulations by the Working Groups. She believed that there would be agreement at the end of next week and that all countries would be participating in the Conference.

GARETH EVANS, former Foreign Minister of Australia, said that however passionate the delegations might be, and however that was understandable given the horror that was occurring in Middle East at the moment, but they had to realize that there was a larger game at stake. The order of the magnitude of the issues involved in the World Conference were such that it was absolutely critical that the Conference not be destroyed by persons excessively concerned about a particular issue. If the Conference was allowed to be derailed, and if they lost consensus and the opportunity to have a coherent and unified standard setting exercise of the kind contemplated for in Durban, then it would have been a very irresponsible exercise indeed. As much as he understood the passion of those who were fixated on particular issues, and as much as he might privately not be keen about the attitudes of some Governments who wanted to regard those issues as show stoppers and to walk away even from debating them, it was absolutely critical for the Conference to succeed. The issues were too big and important for it to be a failure. That was the mood of the Group and the message that they wished to reflect.

EMEKA ANYAOKU, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, said that the matter of the importance of the success of this Conference was one that everyone upheld. They had all said that consensus must be the basis for success. It was important that all the nations that participated in the World Conference would agree to the Declaration and commit themselves to its implementation. The lines on a possible consensus on the issues of slavery and compensation were already beginning to emerge. It was crucial that all concerned should recognize the gravity of the historical injustice and cruelty that slavery represented. He did not think there would be difficulty in everyone recognizing that. There should also be recognition that the consequences of that have continued. Poverty and lack of development were part of the consequences. There was an emerging consensus on different platforms on how to address poverty and lack of development. It should be possible to reach a form of words that would recognize this without jeopardizing the success of the World Conference.

A journalist said that there was a big difference between the recognition of an injustice and the granting of payment, and asked how they could be reconciled.

MR. ANYAOKU said that they were talking about recognition and acknowledgement. As for payment, there were other international platforms where the discussions on how to alleviate poverty and assist development in development countries were going on. It might be possible to increase the level of discussion at the other platforms. It might be possible to assure those calling for compensation that they could be taken up in other platforms. That might be the beginning of an understanding and compromise.

FEDERICO MAYOR, former Director General of UNESCO, said he fully agreed on how difficult it was today to ask the present generation to pay for the injustices committed by their ancestors. However, at Durban, they could start today to pay the injustices that were committed today. Western countries had promised to pay 0.7 per cent of the GDP as official development assistance, but except for a few exceptions, that did not happen. Countries of the OECD were only providing 0.21 or 0.22 per cent. Developing countries had to be provided with possibilities of knowledge and technology.

DAVID LANGE, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, said it was possible for nations to have a process of reconciliation which did not depend on the payment of large amounts of money but recognized the historical wrongfulness of what had happened, not withstanding that at the time that it happened, there was no substantial moral wrong involved. It was not possible to compensate for terrible things and past abuses that were done, yet it was absolutely critical that we are regretful for what gave us our well-being in the settled prosperous northern world, and that we manage to put resources and make sure that developing countries had the same chance. To have the Conference fail, or to be subjected to the threats to boycott by some major player was absurd. The whole climate was changing.

GARTH EVANS, former Foreign Minister of Australia, said that what the Group of Eminent Persons brought to this process was very simple and straightforward: it was to remind everybody involved in this Conference to not lose sight of the bottom line as to what this Conference was all about and what it could achieve. They had to remember that conferences like this did matter, did set norms, did capture the ideas of the present, including in particular the idea of apologizing for the past. It was important that conferences like this articulated in succinate and coherent ways what these new laws were. It was important that in doing this they put pressure on political leaders around the world. It was important that conferences like this identified action programmes and standards for the scrutiny and accountability of Governments and that they provided review mechanisms. That was what at stake here.

Mr. Evans said that it was too important for a conference like this to fail. It had failed before a couple of times because of people pushing particular issues, perfectly understandable, but beyond the point of political break down because of the prevailing realities of the day. What the Group was urging was that the negotiators not push issues to that particular point. On the issue of Zionism equating to racism, they should recognize that this had been dealt with by the United Nations. While nobody could object to the discussion of particular countries' practices in the context of the issues, the actual issue regarding Zionism was nothing other than a source of potential destruction for the Conference. On the issue of compensation, the Group was saying that for those things that had gone wrong in the past there were three kinds of solutions: one to ensure that they do not continue happening in the present and future; second to continue to do what you could to compensate materially to the past; and thirdly to compensate psychologically by recognition and acts of apology.

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For information media - not an official record