The United Nations opens its first global racism conference in eight years on Monday with the U.S. and at least five other countries boycotting the event out of concern that Islamic countries will demand that in denounce Israel and ban criticism of Islam.
The administration of President Barack Obama, America’s first black head of state, announced Saturday that it would boycott “with regret” the weeklong meeting in Geneva, which already is experiencing much of the bickering and political infighting that marred the 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa.
The Netherlands declared its boycott Sunday, while Australia, Canada, Israel and Italy already have said they would not attend.
“I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe,” Obama said in Trinidad on Sunday after attending the Summit of the Americas.
But he said the language of the U.N.’s draft declaration “raised a whole set of objectionable provisions” and risked a reprise Durban, “which became a session through which folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive.”
“We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all of the language from 2001, that’s not something we can sign up for,” Obama said. “Our participation would have involved putting our imprimatur on something we just didn’t believe in.”
Some European countries are still deciding whether to attend the U.N. conference.
U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville said Germany informed the global body on Sunday that it would boycott it. In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry refused to confirm that, but said the government would announce its final decision on Sunday night.
Britain said it will send diplomats, despite concerns the meeting could become a forum for Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic attacks.
At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI said the conference is needed to eliminate racial intolerance around the world. Asia News, a Catholic news agency that is part of the missionary arm of the Vatican, said of the pope’s comment: “The Holy See is distancing itself from the criticisms of some Western countries.”
“I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States’ decision not to attend,” said U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay, who is hosting the conference.
She conceded some countries were focusing solely on one or two issues to the detriment of the fight against intolerance, but said it is essential that the issue of racism be tackled globally.
The major sticking points regarding the proposed final U.N. declaration are its implied criticism of Israel and an attempt by Muslim governments to ban all criticism of Islam, Sharia law, the prophet Muhammad and other tenets of their faith.
Some eerie historical dates coincide with the conference, which is supposed to examine the various manifestations of racism, intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia around the world. Tuesday marks this year’s day for Holocaust remembrance, while Monday’s opening of the conference falls on the birthday of Nazi Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who repeatedly has called for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust — is slated to speak on the first day. He also meets Sunday evening with President Hans-Rudolf Merz of Switzerland, the country which represents the diplomatic interests of the United States in the Islamic republic.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said Britain doesn’t want to see countries such as Iran debating about whether the Holocaust occurred. The official spoke on customary condition of anonymity.
The pullout of Germany would be significant as it has played a leading role in U.N. anti-racism efforts as a result of its troubled historical legacy. In recent meetings, it has expressed dismay about some governments’ attempts to downplay the significance of the Holocaust.
The bland U.N. draft statement does not mention Israel by name, but it reaffirms the Durban statement and its reference to the plight of Palestinians. That document was agreed after the United States and Israel had walked out over attempts to liken Zionism — the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land — to racism.
Israel and Jewish groups have lobbied hard against Western participation in the meeting, arguing that the presence alone of American and European negotiators would give legitimacy to an anti-Semitic gathering.
Still, after years of contentious preparations there appears little evidence to validate these fears. The statement of 2001 that is so contentious now was cheered in Israel at the time, as it recognized the Jewish state’s right to security. Then-Israeli President Shimon Peres called it “an accomplishment of the first order for Israel and Israeli democracy.”
Pillay said, “I fail to see why, given that the Middle East is not mentioned in this document, that politics related to the Middle East continue to intrude into the process.”
Washington could easily have opted out of any language reaffirming the 2001 Durban Declaration, while taking part in the new agreement, she said. “And then we could have all moved on together, and put the problems of 2001 behind us,” Pillay added in a statement.
Regarding its boycott, the Obama administration said it could not endorse any statement that singled out Israel or included passages demanding a ban on language considered an “incitement” of religious hatred. Such calls “run counter to the U.S. commitment to unfettered free speech,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
Many Muslim nations want curbs to free speech to prevent insults to Islam they claim have proliferated since the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. They cite the 2005 cartoons of Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper that sparked riots in the Muslim world.
European countries also have criticized the meeting for focusing heavily on the West and ignoring problems of racism and intolerance in the developing world.