Australia joins U.N. racism conference boycott

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia joined the United States and Canada Sunday in boycotting a United Nations conference on racism next week, saying it was concerned the conference would be used as a platform for anti-Semetic views.

The United Nations organized the forum in Geneva to help heal the wounds from the last such meeting, in Durban, South Africa. The United States and Israel walked out of that 2001 conference when Arab states tried to define Zionism as racist.

“Australia has decided not to participate in the Durban Review Conference,” Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in a statement.

“The 2001 Declaration singled out Israel and the Middle East. Australia expressed strong concerns about this at the time,” he said.

“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.”

The U.S. State Department said Saturday that Washington would boycott the conference, citing objectionable language in the meeting’s draft declaration. The Obama administration has come under strong pressure from Israel not to attend.

Canada has said it will not go next week because of fears of a repeat of the “Israel-bashing” that occurred at the last conference. The European Union is still deliberating.

The Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has called a meeting for Sunday evening to evaluate the bloc’s stance on attending. Britain, however, will send a delegation to the conference, albeit without a high-level official.

Human Rights Watch said the meeting in Geneva would lack needed diplomatic gravitas without Washington’s presence.

A draft declaration prepared for the conference removed all references to Israel, the Middle East conflict and a call to bar “defamation of religion” -- an Arab-backed response to a 2006 controversy over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that Western states see as a way to quash free expression.

The United States said there had been improvements to the document, but not enough.

Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani