U.S. May Boycott U.N. Racism Conference Over Document

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

NEW YORK, Feb. 27 -- The Obama administration has said it will boycott a major U.N. conference on racism scheduled for April unless significant changes are made to the draft outcome document, which U.S. officials say unfairly singles out Israel for censure and could restrict freedom of speech.

A State Department official said that the current text is "unsalvageable" and that the United States would reconsider its position only if the negotiators stripped out provisions criticizing Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and recommendations for restrictions on the defamation of religions, an initiative by Islamic states that Washington fears could undercut free speech. The United States also opposes any language requiring reparations for slavery.

A U.S. delegation went to Geneva last week to participate in preliminary negotiations for the conference, which is being held to review progress on a declaration from the 2001 World Summit Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The United States and Israel walked out of that meeting, held in Durban, South Africa, citing anti-Israel bias.

"Unfortunately, the document being negotiated has gone from bad to worse," a State Department official said. "As a result, the United States will not participate in the forthcoming negotiations on this text, nor will we be able to participate in a conference that is based on this text."

The official said it is possible the United States would reconsider its participation if the negotiators produced "a viable text" that was shorter and did not reiterate the conclusions of the 2001 meeting.

At the same time, the United States told human rights advocates in a conference call yesterday that it would send an official to Geneva on Monday to participate in the proceedings of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which the United States has not joined. The Obama administration said it has made no decision on whether to join the council as a full member. The Bush administration announced last June that it would no longer send an observer to the council's meetings, citing skepticism that the council was an effective watchdog for human rights.

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

Israel and Canada have said they will boycott the April review conference, asserting 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 taking part, against some American Jewish organizations, who have called for a boycott.

"We agree the text needs improvement," said Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch, which received a State Department briefing on the policy. "But we believe that the best way to achieve it is to sit down at the table and work. We're concerned whether [the new policy] leaves enough room for there to be a constructive discussion." But Hicks praised the administration decision to send an observer to the U.N. rights council, which she described as a "crucial step in the right direction."

Samantha Power, a foreign policy adviser for the White House, briefed American Jewish organizations.

The Anti-Defamation League, which supports a boycott, applauded the U.S. position. "The Durban Review Conference has itself been tainted by the very bigotry and vitriol that it was meant to counter," said a statement from Glen S. Lewy, the national chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, the national director. "We applaud the administration for refusing to participate in a process that would in any way brand Israel as a racist country."

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