Britain and a small number of allies are being accused of jeopardising the UN’s anti-racism conference by blocking the European Union from issuing a straightforward apology for the transatlantic trade in slavery.
The British delegation in Durban is pushing instead for a more modest expression of “regret”. But other EU states fear that British resistance to African demands for a frank admission of guilt could wreck the international meeting and leave the Europeans blamed for its failure.
Eleven EU countries are prepared to offer an outright apology for slavery, led by Belgium, which currently holds the presidency of the EU and is conducting the official negotiations with the African bloc.
But four others – Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal – are prepared only to express “regret” about the slave trade, without any specific recognition of responsibility.
“Britain is the stickiest on this,” said a European source close to the talks. “The Belgians are pushing hard to apologise. The majority of EU delegations are willing to make a compromise on an apology, but some are still unable to accept this.”
EU delegates agree that they are not prepared to call slavery a crime against humanity, because it could have legal implications and force them to pay reparations. Britain says that even an apology could have damaging consequences.
But Hans Corell, the legal adviser to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has told the EU otherwise. During the past three days, European officials have been working on the basis of a draft wording on slavery agreed by foreign ministers in July.
“The European Union profoundly deplores the human suffering, individual and collective, caused by slavery and the slave trade. They are among the most dishonourable and abhorrent chapters in the history of humanity. The [EU] condemns these practices, in the past and present, and regrets the suffering they have caused,” it said.
African delegates protested that the draft fell well short of an apology. For a start, it does not acknowledge that European states were at the centre of the transatlantic slave trade, or that it began a long history of western abuse of Africa.
The African bloc wants slavery described as a “crime against humanity”, “barbaric”, of “enormous magnitude” and unparalleled in its dehumanising of so many people.
British officials declined to comment. But the director general of the European commission, Odile Quintin, yesterday acknowledged that the EU was divided on the issue, and that the position, for now at least, was that the word “apology” would not be used.
“We are absolutely ready to accept we have condemnation and regretting,” she said. “But what we would like to avoid is where an apology leads to con crete commitments. If you have a legal relationship between apology and commitments, it’s a problem.”
Foreign Office officials are expected to meet in London today to consider whether to give ground. Although the Africa minister, Lady Amos, heads the British delegation, any significant changes to the text on slavery will have to be approved by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw.
Criticism of Israel is also jeopardising the conference. Passions were further inflamed by the release of a final declaration by a meeting of non-governmental organisations, running parallel to the main meeting, which accused Israel of genocide.
The document calls Israel a “racist apartheid state” and demands an end to the “ongoing Israeli systematic perpetration of racist crimes, including war crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing”.