- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

GENEVA | The United Nations opens its first global racism conference in eight years Monday, with the United States and at least six other countries boycotting the event out of concern that Islamic countries will demand that it denounce Israel and ban criticism of Islam.

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.

The administration of President 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 and Germany announced their boycotts Sunday, while Australia, Canada, Israel and Italy already had 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,” Mr. Obama said in Trinidad on Sunday, after attending the Summit of the Americas.

But he said the language of the U.N. draft declaration risked a reprise of Durban, during which “folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were oftentimes 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,” Mr. Obama said.

“Hopefully, some concrete steps come out of the conference that we can partner with other countries on to actually reduce discrimination around the globe, but this wasn’t an opportunity to do it,” he said.

Some European countries are still deciding whether to attend the U.N. conference. Britain said it would 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 was 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.

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, Shariah law, the prophet Muhammad and other tenets of their faith.

The pullout of Germany is significant because it has played a leading role in U.N. anti-racism efforts as a result of its troubled historical legacy.

“This decision was not easy,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “As in Durban in 2001, this conference could be abused by others as a platform for their interests. We cannot accept that.”

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