GENEVA (Reuters) - A growing Western boycott threatens to undermine a United Nations conference on racism that Israel’s friends say could become a platform for scathing criticism of the Jewish state.
The United States announced on Saturday it would stay away, citing “objectionable” language in a text prepared for the Geneva meeting which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address on Monday, its opening day.
Australia, the Netherlands and Germany joined the boycott on Sunday, and Italy is also expected to sit it out.
Canada and Israel have said for months they will shun the meeting, which the United Nations organized to help heal the wounds left by its last race summit in South Africa in 2001.
The United States and Israel walked out of that conference after Arab states sought to define Zionism as racist.
Australia said it shared U.S. concerns about the declaration for the follow-up conference, which omits explicit references to Israel and the Middle East but “reaffirms” a text adopted at the 2001 Durban summit which singled out the Jewish state.
“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,” Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in a statement.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “The decision was not easy. But the German government thinks that, despite intense efforts especially on the part of the EU, the conference will be misused for other interests, just as the previous conference was in 2001.”
Human rights activists said that without diplomats from Western governments present the draft document may be reopened for negotiation during the week-long conference and possibly not agreed at all.
President Barack Obama, speaking at a news conference after the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, said that Washington wanted a “clean slate” before tackling race and discrimination issues at the United Nations.
“If we have a clean start, a fresh start, we are happy to go,” he said, explaining the U.S. position. “If you’re incorporating a previous conference that we weren’t involved with (and) that raised a whole set of objectionable provisions, then we couldn’t participate.”
The draft text was negotiated by diplomats in months of highly sensitive talks in Geneva. The United States largely stood aside and while EU countries were involved, they had reservations throughout.
Attempts to forge a common EU position on attending the conference proved futile.
An Italian foreign ministry spokesman said it would not send a delegation unless there was a radical last-minute change to the Geneva document, which he said was very unlikely.
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said he would not attend, describing the conference document as “unacceptable.” EU sources said Germany was also planning to sit it out.
Britain and the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, will send to the meeting low-level delegations headed by their ambassadors in Geneva.
Activist groups including the International Federation of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch urged European leaders not to follow the U.S. lead but contribute to the conference on topics such as how to prevent xenophobic attacks.
“We regret the absence of some states ... and urge other governments which have not yet confirmed their decision to constructively participate in the review conference and demonstrate the willingness to engage against racism,” they said in a joint statement.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has made ensuring wide participation at the race conference one of her priorities in the job she took over from Canada’s Louise Arbour last year.
The Western boycott is a blow to the United Nations and could undermine future diplomatic efforts to tackle sensitive questions of race, ethnicity and religion.
Pillay, a South African judge, has called on governments to use the meeting to figure out how to ease ethnic and racial tensions that threaten migrant workers and minorities and could worsen if more people lose their jobs in the economic downturn.
Jewish and Israeli groups celebrated the planned absences as a way to avoid a repeat of the 2001 summit and cut the audience size for Iran’s president, who has said Israel should be “wiped off the map” and questioned whether the Holocaust happened.
Ahmadinejad arrived at a Geneva hotel on Sunday evening for a dinner with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, surrounded by a large security entourage. He did not speak to the press.
His plenary address and news conference will coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Pope Benedict, who is sending a Vatican delegation, said the conference was an important opportunity to fight discrimination.
“I sincerely urge all delegates at the Geneva conference to work together in a spirit of dialogue and mutual acceptance to put an end to all forms of racism, discrimination and intolerance,” he said after his weekly Sunday address in Rome.
Additional reporting by Catherine Hornby in Amsterdam, Michael Perry in Sydney, Jan Strupczewski in Brussels, Daniel Flynn in Rome and Sue Pleming in Washington; Editing by Robert Woodward