Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly referred to Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, as he. Pillay is a woman. This version has been corrected.

U.S. Holds Firm on Reparations, Israel in U.N. Racism Talks

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 19 -- The Obama administration on Thursday concluded its first round of politically charged U.N. negotiations on racism, pressing foreign governments to drop reparation demands for slavery and to desist from singling out Israel for criticism in a draft declaration to be presented at a U.N. conference in April.

The United States is exploring whether it will participate in the conference, which will review progress on a declaration from the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The United States and Israel walked out of that meeting, held in Durban, South Africa.

U.N. officials have urged the Obama administration to participate in the review conference, saying that the election of the first African American president presents the United States with an opportunity to inspire other minorities around the world and to highlight U.S. progress in the years since slavery was abolished and blacks were granted civil rights.

Although a decision has not been made on whether to attend, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, dispatched two envoys, Felice D. Gaer, a human rights advocate, and Betty King, a former U.S. diplomat, to Geneva to make the U.S. case in discussions on the draft declaration.

The administration "is pushing back against efforts to brand Israel as racist in this conference," Gaer said in an interview. But she cautioned that U.S. attendance at this week's final preparatory meeting does not mean the United States will participate in the Geneva conference. "This is a fact-finding mission; it's just a first step. There is no promise that there will be anything else."

Still, the tentative U.S. diplomacy provides an early test of the administration's ability to advance the cause of human rights in an institution in which major rights violators hold considerable sway. The new administration is also considering whether it will join the U.N Human Rights Council, which the Bush administration derided as an Israel-bashing forum.

In the first round of negotiations, states offered more than 100 amendments to an already unwieldy draft declaration. For instance, Iran proposed language that would expand the meaning of the term anti-Semitism to include anti-Arab behavior.

Gaer said that she was also raising objections to a proposal by Islamist states to limit the right to defame religions. "It not only threatens freedom of speech, but threatens to turn the whole human rights paradigm on its head," she said. Negotiations will probably resume in March or early April, she said.

Israel and Canada have since said they would boycott the April review conference, claiming that initial preparatory meetings have confirmed their fears of anti-Israel bias in the process.

The debate over U.S. participation has pitted American human rights advocates, who support U.S. participation at the conference, against some American Jewish organizations, who have called for a boycott. "There hasn't been any change in terms of the bias, the bigotry, the stigmatizing of Israel," said Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "I can't see how anybody can maintain the illusion that they can make a difference."

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the "people who want to boycott Durban are shooting themselves in the foot. I think it is important to remember the Durban process is one of consensus; those present can block any inappropriate statement. If the United States isn't there, it can't block consensus." The meeting is known as the Durban Review Conference.

Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said a boycott would be "a sad state of affairs."

"It risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if the world's states cannot get together to discuss problems of this great importance," she said. "That would be a disaster and a huge setback in the fight against racism and intolerance."

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