World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Department of Public Information - News and Media Services Division - New York
Durban, South Africa
31 August 7 September 2001
1 September 2001


PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY-GENERAL KOFI ANNAN


Delegations are making genuine and serious efforts to find compromise language on the Middle East and compensation for slavery that would speak to every community, government and group that felt discriminated against, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this afternoon.

Speaking in Durban, South Africa, during the World Conference against Racism, Mr. Annan told correspondents that while the two issues threatened consensus at the meeting that efforts were under way to find a compromise and hopefully a concrete plan of action that can be helpful to governments, non-governmental organizations and societies when they return home.

The Conference, he said presented an opportunity to face the issues of racism and discrimination squarely. "I am delighted to be in South Africa and what better place to discuss how to overcome racism, discrimination and tolerance?" he said.

A correspondent asked whether adopting suggested language critical of Israel would not taint the image of the United Nations as an impartial mediator or monitor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Annan replied that the important thing was that the document and declaration resulting from the Conference should be fair. "The question of Zionism versus racism is dead", he said, noting that the Organization had rescinded it a decade ago. "I think the delegations understand that and those who don't are beginning to get that very clearly."

Asked by another journalist whether he wanted all specific references to Israel removed from the draft Declaration, the Secretary-General said the Middle East was not the only situation where people were hurting. "I would hope that we would come up with language, whether in a generic form or whatever, that will speak to every situation and will respond to the feelings and the pain that vulnerable people are feeling around the world", he added.

Another correspondent asked Mr. Annan to elaborate on his statement yesterday that where responsibility for historical wrongs could be traced to companies or individuals that they be held accountable.

The Secretary-General replied that some individuals who had committed historical wrongs were still alive and some corporations were still in business. They should be made to account. Historically there had been that kind of accountability, he pointed out.

Responding to a later question on reparations and the proposed condemnation of slavery as a crime against humanity, the Secretary-General said the question was on the table. It was one of the more delicate points in the Conference. "The question is not going to disappear. There are many people who are going to deal with it and it's going to continue, but I don't think that the place to settle this matter is here", he said.

Asked his reaction to demands that India's caste system be equated with racism, Mr. Annan said he had indicated in his plenary statement yesterday that all forms of discrimination should be eliminated.

Would the Conference outcome document be so watered down as to be meaningless? another journalist asked.

The Secretary-General expressed the hope that the document could be improved in the sense that delegations could find common ground. That did not necessarily mean watering down the text; it could also mean improving it in a realistic and achievable manner that elicited the greatest possible support.

Responding to a question on the level of representation at the Conference, the Secretary-General said he wished all governments had been represented at their highest level. "This is an important Conference and it is incumbent on all governments and organizations to come here and defend what they believe in and their voices heard and push for common ground in the right language."

Another journalist asked what role the Secretary-General was playing to salvage the Conference. At what level was he talking with the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Mr. Annan said he sensed willingness among the delegations to be flexible and to work for the right language following his meetings with them this morning. "Lots of behind-the-scenes work is going on", he added. "I'm quite confident that with good will we will succeed. And as I have said, we will give comfort to the worst elements in every society if we were to fail. And it is important that we do succeed."

Asked his opinion of how Australia had dealt with the refugee ship crisis, Mr. Annan replied that he had been in touch with the Prime Minister of Australia, the Foreign Minister of Norway and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, who was in Durban, about the refugees. "The ideal solution would have been for them to be processed, and those found to be bona fide refugees given refuge in Australia or repatriated to a third country."

Given the position of the Australian Government, he said New Zealand and Nauru had offered to screen the refugees. "Some of those found to be bona fide refugees will stay in New Zealand, some will stay in Nauru", the Secretary-General said. "Australia has indicated they may take some and others will go somewhere else," he said, adding that it was not an ideal situation and that he felt for the refugees who were living in difficult conditions. This is not a way to handle a refugee situation. "Of course, the Government of Australia maintains that while it has been very generous with refugees, it is now receiving lots of illegal and unprocessed immigrants, and it sees this as an attempt to put an end to that."

However, he pointed out, that did not give comfort to the men, women and children on the ship who were in need of refuge and support. "And so we accept the compromise and hope it can be implemented quite quickly so that these people can leave the ship", he said.

Responding to a subsequent question on that subject, the Secretary-General said he would have preferred that Australia accepted the asylum seekers. "In fact, under our own refugee convention, the High Commissioner for Refugees applies. It is the first call of duty, the first country that the refugee lands in that should try and give them refuge", he added.

He continued: "I would have preferred that had happened in Australia. It did not happen, and we found a compromise solution. I hope that will give the refugees some comfort and refuge."

Asked about Italian efforts to move the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Summit from Rome, he said he had discussed the matter with Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero. On Monday, the Italian Prime Minister would be meeting with Jacques Diouf, Head of FAO, to discuss the issue and work out an acceptable solution.

A journalist said that none of the African leaders had really talked about ethnicity conflicts within their own borders and that they had dealt largely with historical problems.

Mr. Annan replied that historical problems had been raised because they were very much on the agenda. "I hope if they did focus on that, it does not mean that they are oblivious to their concerns in their own society and the conflicts and ethnic divisions.

"Most of the leaders here today are involved with conflicts on the continent either as combatants or working very hard to resolve conflicts and trying to deal with issues of division between religious groups and ethnicity", he said.

Asked what he thought of suggestions that Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi should be charged at the International Court of Justice, the Secretary-General said the only way to resolve the Angolan conflict was to apply the Lusaka accords. "To make peace you have to talk. I don't see how one can make progress if the parties refuse to talk. I think we need to be concerned about the conditions of the ordinary people in Angola", he added. The question of charging Savimbi or any tribunal had not been raised with him or in the Security Council.

A correspondent asked if the problems encountered by the Conference were due to lack of preparation and guidance pointing to a low attendance from heads of States.

The Secretary-General said that while he would have preferred to see many more heads of State, that for many conferences, representation rarely went beyond the ministerial level. "You have spoken about a lack of preparation, and perhaps we could have done some things differently. We could have prepared ourselves better, but I think that Mrs. Robinson and her team have done as much as they could. There have been four preparatory conferences in every region, and they have had a great deal of contact", he added.

Asked about the land issue in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Mr. Annan replied that he was not too involved with the situation in southern Africa, but he had been monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe. Land reform was necessary, but it had to be credible and legal and adequate compensation must be paid to those whose land was taken.

Responding to a question on the current talks between the leaders of Myanmar and opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Annan said that Razali Ismail, his Special Representative, had done a very good of keeping the parties talking. "We are making progress. As you have noticed, many opposition politicians have been released from jail. The process is moving ahead", he said.

Asked whether he had spoken to Michael Southwick, head of the United States delegation to the Conference, he said Mr. Southwick had expressed concern that the official documents contain fair and acceptable language that did not pick on Israel. "We are hoping that we will get a document that is credible and will allow everyone to participate."

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