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World News

U.N. racism meet challenged on Israel, free speech

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said Monday there was no need for the United States and other Western countries to fear that a Geneva conference on racism would be sullied by anti-Semitism.

But following a U.S. decision to stay away unless the wording of a planned final declaration was radically changed, France warned that it also was concerned the gathering would see unacceptable “excesses” and efforts to undermine free speech.

And Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in a comment issued by the Israeli mission in Geneva, said the conference next months was aimed at promoting “blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment disguised as a battle against racism,”

Pillay, who has battled to overcome general Western worry that the meeting was being hijacked by Islamic countries keen to protect their religion from criticism and focus fire on Israel, was speaking to the U.N.’s 47-member Human Rights Council.

She complained that the conference, to be held in Geneva from April 20 to 24 to review the outcome of a similar meeting in Durban in 2001, was the target of a “lobbying campaign” of disparagement, but made no direct reference to the U.S. stance.

“I am fully aware that the legacy of the 2001 Durban Conference has been tainted by the anti-Semitic behavior of some NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at the sidelines of that conference,” she told the Council.

“And now the (Geneva) review conference has also been the target of a disparaging media and lobbying campaign on the part of those who fear a repetition of anti-Semitic outbursts,” Pillay said, adding: “This is unwarranted.”

U.S. WANTS CHANGES

She was speaking three days after the United States said it would not attend unless the draft text of the declaration to be issued -- which it sees as anti-Israeli and also enshrining limitations on freedom of speech -- was altered.

Canada and Israel have already said they will boycott the meeting, widely dubbed Durban-II. Some European governments say they may also stay away if certain “red lines” -- on Israel and other issues -- are crossed.

Netherlands’ Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, due to speak to the Council Tuesday, has said the conference is shaping up as “a propaganda circus” to smear Israel.

France’s human rights minister Rama Yade told the Council on Monday that the struggle against anti-Semitism as well as racism was vital to her country and that no one state should be pilloried at the April conference.

France could also not accept any challenge to the principle of freedom of expression, she added -- a clear reference to Islamic countries’ insistence that “defamation of religion” be effectively equated with racism in the final declaration.

The stance of Muslim countries on the issue was spelled out clearly in the Council by an Egyptian government official, Mufid Shehab, who declared: “Opinions cannot be expressed freely if this affects the religious sensibilities of others.”

The United States walked out of the 2001 conference in Durban, saying anti-Semitic demonstrations on the streets had been reflected in the conference itself and in its final declaration and program of action.

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