GENEVA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will boycott a United Nations conference on racism next week, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday, citing objectionable language in the meeting’s draft declaration.
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.
The Obama administration, which kept its distance from preparations for the “Durban II” meeting, has come under strong pressure from Israel not to attend.
“With regret, the United States will not join the review conference,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood, ending weeks of deliberations inside the Obama administration over whether to attend.
Wood said significant improvements were made to the conference document, but the text still reaffirmed “in toto” a declaration that emerged from the Durban conference which the United States had opposed.
“The United States also has serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding “incitement,” that run counter to the U.S. commitment to unfettered free speech,” he added.
The announced boycott came about three months after President Barack Obama became the first African-American to lead the United States.
Canada also 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.
“There are still several member states of the EU that are not decided yet,” Czech foreign ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalova said. “We are in touch with them and there will be a decision on a common position before the conference starts.”
Britain, however, confirmed that it would send a delegation to the conference, albeit without a high-level official.
Juliette de Rivero of Human Rights Watch said the meeting in Geneva would lack needed diplomatic gravitas without Washington’s presence.
“For us it’s extremely disappointing and it’s a missed opportunity, really, for the United States,” she said.
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.
Wood conceded there had been improvements to the document, but he said it was not enough.
“The United States will work with all people and nations to build greater resolve and enduring political will to halt racism and discrimination wherever it occurs,” he said.
Diplomats said the high-profile presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the forum made it probable that touchy subjects would still dominate the proceedings.
Ahmadinejad, who has previously said Israel should be “wiped off the map” and questioned whether the Nazi Holocaust happened, will address the plenary and hold a news conference on Monday — coinciding with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Iran’s sentencing of U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison on Saturday may also have dampened White House enthusiasm about the chance of direct diplomatic contact with Tehran at the conference.
Ahmadinejad is one of only a handful of heads of state who have confirmed they will attend the conference at the U.N.’s Palais des Nations.
Iranian dissidents on Saturday expressed dismay about his taking center stage, saying his participation “would only serve to discredit the conference.”
Western officials have said they are preparing for a response if Ahmadinejad were to make “unacceptable” comments in his Monday remarks. Some said they would respond with rebuttals on the spot, and others signaled they could leave the forum.
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.”
(Writing by Sue Pleming and Laura MacInnis; editing by Paul Simao)
Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London, Holger Hansen in Berlin, Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; editing by Robert Woodward