GENEVA (Reuters) - Diplomats reached agreement on Friday on a declaration for next week’s politically charged United Nations conference on racism, adding to the pressure on Washington and Brussels to decide whether to attend.
The 16-page text omits references to Israel, Zionism, the Middle East conflict and other divisive issues that have made Western powers shy away from the “Durban II” conference, which follows up on a 2001 racism conference in South Africa.
Israel and its ally, the United States, walked out of the Durban meeting after Arab and Muslim states tried to insert language defining Zionism as racist.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she would be “very surprised” if the document meets resistance in the Geneva meeting, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will address Monday.
“I feel very certain because this was so well deliberated by all groups that it will have an easy passage through the conference,” she told a news briefing at the U.N.’s Palais des Nations complex, where the April 20-24 conference will be held.
The European Union and United States have been waiting to see a final version of the text before deciding who, if anyone, to send. Canada and Israel are boycotting the meeting because they think hostility toward Israel could dominate the forum.
Asked about the latest text, State Department Robert Wood said that Washington was still weighing its options.
“The United States still has some concerns,” Wood told Reuters. “No decision has been made yet whether to attend or participate. We need to have our concerns addressed.”
The White House has been especially uneasy about efforts by Arab states to include a condemnation of “incitement to religious hatred” and to criminalize “defamation of religion.”
It sees those efforts as an attempt to limit free expression in response to controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad in 2006.
U.S. diplomats distanced themselves from negotiations over the text in past months, a decision Pillay said was unfortunate.
“It is to my tremendous regret that they did not come and try to persuade the other states on amendments that would be acceptable to them,” she told journalists.
There was no immediate comment from the European Union, whose member states are expected to meet on the weekend to seek a common decision about taking part.
Earlier Friday a German government spokesman said that neither Germany nor the EU could tolerate participating in the conference if it becomes a platform for “one-sided comments on the Middle East conflict.”
And a British source close to the Geneva conference had said recent versions of the document appeared “pretty good,” adding: “It’s still up in the air, but at this stage we remain intending to attend the conference.”
But even if the declaration is seen as palatable to Israel’s major allies, human rights campaigners said an address by Iran’s president Monday — Holocaust Remembrance Day — could upset the meeting and even lead to a walk-out like that in 2001.
Western diplomats said they would be prepared to leave the conference if Ahmadinejad makes “unacceptable” comments in line with his previous statements saying Israel should be “wiped off the map” and questioning whether the Holocaust happened.
“His track record does not leave us feeling very comfortable about what he might say, given what he’s said in the past on the Holocaust, on Israel and on anti-semitism,” one diplomat said.
“We don’t normally walk out of conferences run by the United Nations and we’d rather avoid doing it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t red lines that if breached would prompt us to take action.”
Pillay dismissed speculation that Ahmadinejad might disrupt the U.N. forum, reopen heated debates on the Middle East or call for a ban on “defamation of religion,” as some human rights campaigners have suggested he may seek to do.
“I cannot prejudge what he will say,” the South African said. “At the end of the day what is truly important about this conference is the outcome document and whether it takes us forward in the struggle against racism.”
As of Friday evening there were only four heads of state officially expected to attend — from Iran, Togo, East Timor and Montenegro — along with 32 ministers from countries including Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Norway.
Additional reporting by Luke Baker in London, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Sue Pleming in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Wright