In advance of a major international conference on racism, Human Rights Watch today called for reparations to counter the most severe continuing effects of slavery, segregation, and other extreme forms of racism.

Human Rights Watch said national and international panels should be created with maximum transparency and public participation to identify and acknowledge past abuses and to guide action to counter their present-day effect.

"Groups that suffer today because of slavery or other severe racist practices should be compensated by governments responsible for these practices," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "Those most seriously victimized today by past wrongs should be the first priority for compensation to end their victimization."

Roth said reparations for past abuse should focus first on groups that continue to suffer the most severe hardships. "We're not talking about a handout or a windfall," said Roth. "We are calling for long-term commitments to correct the damage done to the groups left most seriously disadvantaged."

Human Rights Watch proposed the establishment of national panels, in multiracial countries such as the United States, Brazil and South Africa, as well as one or more international panels to look at the effect of the slave trade. These panels would focus on tracing these effects not for particular individuals but for groups.

The panels should serve as truth commissions aiming to reveal the extent to which a government's past racist practices contribute to contemporary deprivation domestically and abroad, Roth said. They should educate the public, acknowledge responsibility, and propose methods of redress and making amends.

A primary purpose of reparations would be to address the social and economic foundations of today's victims' continuing marginalization-through means such as investment in education, housing, health care, or job training.

The question of compensation for slavery will be one of the most controversial topics when the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance meets in Durban, South Africa from August 31 to September 7.