U.S. Appears Set To Boycott U.N. Session on Racism
Conference Stance on Israel Is at Issue; Advocacy Groups Criticize White House

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Obama administration appears to be standing by its decision to boycott the World Conference Against Racism next week in Geneva, despite efforts to focus and tone down language in a draft conference document viewed as hostile toward Israel.

The preliminary conference document ran 45 pages and called for reparations for slavery, condemned the "validation of Islamophobia," and asserted that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is grounded in racism.

In response to objections raised by negotiators from the Obama administration, the document has since been dramatically shortened and many of its sharp statements have been removed. Still, the administration seems uninterested in attending, stoking frustration among activist groups who have said that it is ironic that the nation's first black president would choose that course.

"For his administration not to be present at this global conversation is a disappointment," said Imani Countess, senior director for public affairs at TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy group that focuses on U.S. foreign policy. "For President Bush not to participate, that would have been expected. For Barack Obama's administration not to participate sends a disappointing signal. It says these issues are not important."

TransAfrica sent a letter to Obama late last week urging him to send a delegation to the United Nations-sponsored meeting, saying that to do otherwise would contradict his promise to engage even with nations that hold views that are contrary to those held by the United States. Moreover, the letter said, U.S. participation would send an important message to the rest of the world.

"U.S. participation in the conference is critical for both symbolic and political reasons," said the letter, which was also signed by other leaders, including Jesse L. Jackson and the heads of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

"Nations are watching your administration and will decide either to withdraw, or to lower the level of their participation, if the U.S. doesn't participate," the letter continued. "Reduced global participation would mark a significant setback to efforts to overcome racial inequality around the world."

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said that although progress has been made in revising the draft text, concerns remain. "We hope that these remaining concerns will be addressed, so that the United States can reengage the conference negotiations in the hopes of arriving at a conference document that we can support," he said.

The White House offered no further details. But last week a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to Obama congratulating him for deciding to boycott the meeting, which is scheduled to begin Monday.

"We applaud you for making it clear that the United States will not participate in a conference that undermines freedom of expression and is tainted by an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic agenda," said the letter signed by seven members of Congress.

Israel and several Jewish advocacy groups have urged the United States and other nations not to take part in the conference. Canada and Italy have said they will not attend, and several other U.S. allies, including Australia, are considering not participating, according to representatives of several advocacy groups.

The week-long conference is expected to bring together delegations from countries around the globe and representatives of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations to take stock of the progress made in fighting bias since the last World Conference Against Racism was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. At that gathering, much of the discussion focused on Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The United States walked out of that meeting to protest an effort to compare Zionism to racism.

The United Nations has been working on next week's conference for the past three years, mostly without input from the United States. After Obama took office, he sent a delegation to Geneva, raising hopes that his administration would become a full partner in the effort. Hopes were lifted further when Obama had the United States rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council.

But after sending the delegation to a preliminary meeting in Geneva, the administration declared the meeting's document unfocused, hostile to Israel and essentially not salvageable. After that, the document was heavily edited. Its original length was cut by half and specific mentions of Israel and the need to pay reparations for slavery were deleted.

The new draft created a sense among advocacy groups that the administration would reverse its decision. But the changes have apparently not been sufficient to win Obama's support.

"This is a big blow," Countess said. "Given the high priority the administration places on international engagement and multilateralism, this is just a little bit baffling."

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