- Durban II - racism - United Nations - USA
REUTERS - A United Nations conference on racism is threatened by a growing Western boycott over fears it will be used as a platform for vitriolic criticism of Israel.
The United States announced on Saturday it would stay away, citing "objectionable" language in a text prepared for the Geneva meeting which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address on its opening day on Monday.
Australia and the Netherlands have joined Canada, Italy and Israel who have also said they will shun the meeting, which the United Nations organised to help heal the wounds of its last race summit, in South Africa in 2001.
The United States and Israel walked out of that conference after Arab states sought to define Zionism as racist.
Australia said it shared U.S. concerns about the declaration for the follow-up conference, which omits explicit references to Israel and the Middle East but "reaffirms" a text adopted at the 2001 Durban summit which singled out the Jewish state.
"Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the Review Conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views," Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in a statement.
An Italian foreign ministry spokesman said it would not send a delegation unless there was a radical last-minute change to the Geneva document, which he said was "very unlikely".
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said he would not attend, citing concerns Islamic states would use the U.N. forum to try to bar "incitement" to religious hatred or "defamation of religion" -- a concept borne of the 2006 controversy over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Some countries that still have a long way to go in the human rights domain are misusing the summit to put religion above people's rights and to unnecessarily restrict freedom of speech," Verhagen said in a statement.
He described the conference document as "unacceptable" and a "missed chance" to fight racism and discrimination.
EUROPEAN UNION DECISION
The European Union is meeting late on Sunday to determine a common position on whether to send delegations to Geneva. Britain has already said it will take part in the meeting but without a high-level official.
Activist groups including the International Federation of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch urged European leaders not to follow the U.S. lead.
"We regret the absence of some states ... and urge other governments which have not yet confirmed their decision to constructively participate in the review conference and demonstrate the willingness to engage against racism," they said in a joint statement.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has made ensuring wide participation at the "Durban II" meeting one of her goals after taking over from Canada's Louise Arbour last year.
The absence of top powers in Geneva is a blow to the United Nations and could undermine future diplomatic efforts to tackle sensitive questions of race, ethnicity and religion, which Pillay has warned can explode into violence if ignored.
Pillay said governments should use the meeting to figure out how to ease xenophobic pressures that threaten migrant workers and minorities, and could worsen if the economic downturn kept increasing job losses.
Jewish and Israeli groups celebrated the boycott as a way to avoid a repeat of the 2001 Durban summit and reduce the audience size for Iran's president, who has said Israel should be "wiped off the map" and questioned whether the Holocaust happened.
Ahmadinejad's plenary address and news conference will coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Pope Benedict, who is sending a Vatican delegation, said the conference was an important opportunity to fight discrimination.
"I sincerely urge all delegates at the Geneva conference to work together in a spirit of dialogue and mutual acceptance to put an end to all forms of racism, discrimination and intolerance," he said after his weekly Sunday address in Rome.