GENEVA (AP) - The United Nations’ global conference on racism opens Monday without the U.S. or at least seven other countries who have boycotted the event out of concern that Islamic countries will demand that it 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, Germany and New Zealand announced their boycotts Sunday, while Australia, Canada, Israel and Italy already had said they would not attend.
The French foreign minister said his country’s ambassador to Geneva would attend, but would walk out “immediately” if the conference turned into a platform for racist comments against Israel. Britain had earlier said it would attend.
Obama, speaking in Trinidad on Sunday after attending the Summit of the Americas, said: “I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe.”
But he said the language of the U.N.’s draft declaration risked a reprise of Durban, during 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.
“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.
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.”
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay, who is hosting the conference, said she was “shocked and deeply disappointed” by the U.S. decision not to attend.
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.
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 arrived in Geneva on Sunday evening and met privately with President Hans-Rudolf Merz of Switzerland, the country that represents the diplomatic interests of the United States in the Islamic republic.
The pullout of Germany is significant since 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.
Germany said Sunday that it made its boycott decision after consulting with other European Union nations.
“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,” he said.
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 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 what they fear could become an anti-Semitic gathering.
On Sunday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry thanked the boycotters and predicted the conference would “once again serve as a platform to denigrate Israel and single it out for criticism.”
Still, after years of 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.
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.
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva.