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US won't attend racism meeting

Cites concern on free speech, Israel

By Matthew Lee
Associated Press / April 19, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration will boycott "with regret"a United Nations conference on racism next week over objectionable language in the meeting's final document that could single out Israel for criticism and restrict free speech, the State Department said yesterday.

The decision follows weeks of furious internal debate and will likely please Israel and Jewish groups that lobbied against US participation. But the move upset human rights advocates and some in the African-American community who had hoped that President Obama, the nation's first black president, would send an official delegation.

The administration had wanted to attend the April 20-25 meeting in Geneva, although it warned in late February it would not go unless significant changes were made to the draft text.

Some revisions - including the removal of specific critical references to Israel and problematic passages about the defamation of religion - were negotiated for which State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the administration was "deeply grateful."

But he said the text retains troubling elements that suggest support for restrictions on free speech and an affirmation of the findings of the first World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 that the United States cannot endorse.

"Unfortunately, it now seems certain these remaining concerns will not be addressed in the document to be adopted by the conference next week," Wood said in a statement. "Therefore, with regret, the United States will not join the review conference."

Despite the decision, he stressed that the United States "is profoundly committed to ending racism and racial discrimination" and "will work with all people and nations to build greater resolve and enduring political will to halt racism and discrimination wherever it occurs."

Concern is high that the meeting may descend into heated debate over Israel that marred the last such gathering eight years ago, especially since Iran's hardline president - who has called for Israel's destruction - will attend.

The Durban meeting was dominated by quarrels over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery.

The United States, under the Bush administration, and Israel walked out over attempts to liken Zionism - the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land - to racism. The reference was later dropped, but concerns about anti-Semitism remained in the final text.

Plans to reaffirm the 2001 document were of particular concern to the Obama administration.