U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday said that the United States had decided to boycott a United Nations conference on racism because the draft for the summit risked declaring "hypocritical allegations" against Israel.
"I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe," Obama said in Trinidad on Sunday after attending the Summit of the Americas.
But he said the language of the UN's draft declaration "raised a whole set of objectionable provisions" and risked a reprise of the 2001 predecessor summit in Durban, "which became a session through which folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive."
The Obama administration announced Saturday that it would boycott the conference, scheduled to begin on Monday in Geneva, due to language about Israel and the West in the meeting's final document.
"We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all of the language from 2001, that's not something we can sign up for," Obama said on Sunday. "Our participation would have involved putting our imprimatur on something we just didn't believe in."
Concern is high that the April 20 to 25 conference in Geneva may descend into heated debate over Israel that marred the last such gathering eight years ago, especially since Iran's hardline president - who has called for Israel's destruction - will attend.
The United Nations said it organized the forum to help heal the wounds from its last such conference, in Durban, South Africa. The United States and Israel walked out of the 2001 conference after Arab states sought to define Zionism as racist.
Lieberman: Ahmadinejad invite shows true character of Durban II
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday that the invitation Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the upcoming summit Geneva proves the "goal and character" of the controversial event.
"An international convention that invites a racist such as Ahmadinejad, - who preaches the extermination of the State of Israel day and night - and which allows him to make a central speech, demonstrates both its goal and its character," Lieberman said of the so-called Durban II convention.
Ahmadinejad - who has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust - is slated to speak on the first day of the conference. He is also due to meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, officials of various international organizations in Geneva, and Swiss officials and business executives.
Lieberman added that Israel could not ignore that a Holocaust-denier has been invited to take part in a convention taking place on the very same day that the Jewish people commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day to remember the six million Jews murdered in Europe by Nazi Germany and its accomplices.
In Teheran on Sunday, Ahmedinejad in a televised speech commented on the controversy, saying "it is clear that the Zionists [Israel] and their backers will undertake everything possible so that the voices of those people suppressed [by Israel] will be silenced."
The Iranian leader also charged that the "Zionists control an important part of the politics in the U.S. and Europe and used this influence, especially in the media, to force their demands, which are nothing more than the plundering of nations, onto the world."
EU hopes to reach common stance on Durban participation
The European Union will meet late on Sunday to determine a common position on whether to send delegations to Geneva. Breaking ranks with key Western nations, Britain has said it would take part in the meeting but without a high-level official.
"It is the intention of the government to attend the conference," a British foreign office spokesperson told Haaretz. "We'll have our ambassador to the UN in Geneva leading our delegation."
The British foreign office official said London would actively lobby the conference participants to include language in the final draft statement condemning anti-Semitism as well as promoting the remembrance of the Holocaust.
Australia, Germany and the Netherlands on Sunday joined Canada, Italy and the U.S. in boycotting the conference.
Early Monday, New Zealand announced it would not take part in the summit, which it fears could descend into the same rancor as its predecessor, said Foreign Minister Murray McCully.
"I was determined that New Zealand's participation in the review conference would be on the basis of a draft outcome document that did not endorse the 2001 declaration and which responsibly and productively addressed racism," he said in a statement.
"While combating racism and related intolerance is a cause to which New Zealand attaches the highest importance, the review conference in Geneva is not likely to advance the cause of race relations at the international level," McCully added.
On Sunday, the Dutch government said in a statement that it had decided to boycott because it felt the summit's agenda would be manipulated to advance untoward ends.
"The conference against racism is too important to allow it to be abused for political purposes and attacks against the West," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said.
In his statement, Verhagen said the draft for the conference represents a "wasted opportunity" to address human rights violations by countries and organizations involved in discrimination on sexual, religious and racial biases.
"The conference places Israel as the only defendant," said Verhagen, who is largely seen as a stanch supporter of Israel, a position for which he has often come under criticism in Holland - even by prominent members of his own party.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said his country had already expressed strong concerns when the 2001 Declaration "singled out Israel and the Middle East."
"Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the Review Conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views," Smith said.
Immediately after the U.S. boycott was announced, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the group was deeply dismayed by the decision.
"This decision is inconsistent with the administration's policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with," she said.
"By boycotting Durban, the U.S. is making it more difficult for it to play a leadership role on UN Human Rights Council as it states it plans to do. This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple."
Hours earlier, Human Rights Watch appealed for the U.S. to go, saying it should stand with the victims of racism.
'U.S. is missing an opportunity to protect human rights'
Juliette de Rivero of Human Rights Watch said that without Washington there, the meeting could lack diplomatic gravitas.
"For us it's extremely disappointing and it's a missed opportunity, really, for the United States," she said.
"If the U.S. fails to participate, it will disappoint many who invested hope in the Obama administration's commitment to engage internationally to protect human rights."
Several European Union members also share U.S. reservations about the possibility that the conference, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address on Monday, will be dominated by criticism of Israel.
Israel's envoy to the UN in Geneva Aharon Leshno-Yaar told Israel Radio on Sunday that by hosting Ahmadinejad, Switzerland would in "a shameful way" be ingratiating itself with a Holocaust denier and an Israel-hater.
Meanwhile a Vatican statement said Pope Benedict XVI urged "decisive and concrete action at the national and international level" in order to eradicate every form of racism and disadvantage.
Wishing it every success, he said the Geneva conference was an important step towards this, and should be held in a spirit of dialogue aimed at respect for human dignity and human rights.
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