- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

UNITED NATIONS — The Obama administration is unlikely to attend an upcoming U.N. conference on racism after U.S. diplomats tried but failed to change language offensive to Israel and other countries, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

The apparent decision removes a source of friction with Israel as Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares for her first official visit to the Middle East as secretary of state.

A U.S. delegation spent the last two weeks in Geneva, where it spoke to envoys from 30 nations to try to win concessions on the draft resolution for the U.N. World Conference on Racism, or “Durban II” as it is known.

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The Americans rejected the text, saying it should not single out individual nations for censure nor affirm other elements of the document drafted at the first anti-racism summit in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The official said the Americans were also uneasy with a call for reparations for past slavery.

“As the document is, it cannot be salvaged,” said a State Department official, who was authorized to speak only on condition that he not be named.”As a result, the United States will not participate in further negotiations on this text, nor will it be able to participate in a conference based on this text.”

Israel has asked the Obama administration to join its boycott of the conference, scheduled for April 20-24 in Geneva. Some Jewish groups have said they worried that the tone of the meeting would be similar to the 2001 conclave that discussed Zionism as a form of racism.

Mrs. Clinton leaves this weekend for the Middle East, including a stop in Israel. There she will discuss, among other controversial subjects, Israeli restrictions on aid to Palestinians in Gaza in the aftermath of an Israeli offensive.

“We have no hopes of changes in the essence of the coming Durban Conference,” said Israeli Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, who leads his country’s campaign against anti-Semitism.

“We’re waiting on the U.S. to take its stand, since it will inevitably affect European and other countries, and may result in them banning the meeting as well,” he said, speaking before Friday’s news.

So far only Israel and Canada have announced that they will boycott the conference. Some human rights advocates and many U.S. allies would like the U.S. to attend. However, some European countries are skeptical about the value of a meeting that also looks at the history of slavery without shedding light on a practice which still exists.

A European diplomat told The Washington Times that governments are also concerned about adoption of a resolution banning the “defamation of religion.” This is seen in many countries as ensuring respect for Islam, but in Europe and the United States could be seen as an impediment to free speech. The diplomat asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.

The United States and Israel hastily pulled out of the original 2001 conference, arguing that anti-Israel demonstrations made thoughtful dialogue impossible. However, the Obama administration has shown a desire for greater cooperation with U.N. bodies and forums.

In his report to Congress Tuesday, President Obama pledged “a new era of engagement” with the international community.

”In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun,” Mr. Obama said. ”We know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America.”

The new president has repeatedly said that the United States and United Nations would have a closer relationship and the clearest examples so far have involved human rights.

Washington appears to support a arrest warrant likely to be issued Wednesday by the International Criminal Court against Sudanese President Omar Bashir in connection with war crimes in Darfur. The U.S. has also endorsed the work of an independent tribunal to prosecute the conspiracy behind the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

In Geneva, a U.S. ambassador participated in an in-depth examination earlier this week of China’s human rights record, even though Washington is not a member of the Human Rights Council. American diplomats also attended this week’s meetings to draft the text for Durban II.

The Obama administration view seems to be that it can have more influence participating in U.N. activities than criticizing from the outside.

“We sent this delegation to work with countries that want to achieve a successful review conference that focuses on combating racism, racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance and to explore whether it is going to be possible to focus the Durban Review Conference on these serious issues,” said Gordon K. Duguid, the State Department’s acting deputy spokesman.

“The United States had not previously participated in preparations for the Durban Review Conference because of our strong reservations about the direction of the conference, as the draft document singles out Israel for criticism, places unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression under the guise of defaming religion, and calls for payment of reparations for slavery,” he added.

Some human rights groups, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, leaders of U.S.-U.N. affinity groups and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have urged the U.S. to participate.

“We applaud the United States’ decision to engage in this week’s preparatory meetings of the Durban Review Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said. “We hope the US decision to participate in the negotiations is part of a broader strategy of U.S. engagement on the international human rights agenda, including a decision to run for a seat on the Human Rights Council.”

Skeptics, including Freedom House and pro-Israel organizations, have criticized the Obama administration for seeming to abandon former President George W. Bush’s stance. They warned against legitimizing the conference with America’s presence.

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