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(photo credit: AP)
On the eve of Monday's controversial Durban II UN conference on racism, Germany announced that it had canceled its plans to attend the event out of concern that it could be "abused as a platform for other interests."
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Sunday night that he made the decision to boycott the conference in Geneva after consulting with other European Union nations, and he urged those attending the conference to "stand up for the effective fight against racism and ethnic discrimination."
The week-long meeting is widely expected to repeat the inflammatory, anti-Israel rhetoric that marred the first UN racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
On Sunday, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands added their names to the small but growing list of countries that have opted to boycott the event. The US announced its boycott on Saturday night, and several weeks ago, Italy, Canada and Israel announced that they would not attend.
France has warned that it may not participate, but it has still not announced its intention to make good on that threat.
Speaking at a counter convention to Durban II organized by a group of NGOs upset that the conference has failed to focus on human rights abuses in countries such as Libya, Iran, Cuba, Egypt and Sudan, France's Human Rights Ambassador Francois Zimeray took issue with his country's indecisiveness.
"This evening I would have liked to give you the definitive position of France, but unfortunately we will have to wait a little bit because the French position has not yet finally been decided.
"There are still consultations going on," Zimeray said.
On Sunday, US President Barack Obama lashed out at the language of the conference's draft declaration, saying it showed "antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive."
Jewish groups who have gathered in Geneva to combat the anti-Semitic activity that has surrounded the conference, including a two-day anti-Israel conference held Saturday and Sunday, welcomed the news that additional countries were pulling out.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said: "A boycott is a logical consequence for all countries really interested in combating racism. It is lamentable that the EU has not found a united position, but at least some governments have shown leadership on this important matter."
Israel Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Roni Leshno Yaar said, "We are accumulating a critical mass of countries that are about to walk out."
The issue, he said, was not just the final text or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presence at the conference.
But a UN spokesman for the conference Rupert Colville told the Post that only a small number of countries had opted not to attend. As proof of how many of the 192 UN member states planned to show up, he said that 83 of them were already scheduled to speak at the event.
Among those who stated on Sunday that they intended to appear was Great Britain.
But it said that it could walk out if the event was hijacked by the kind of anti-Semitism that had overwhelmed the 2001 version that met in Durban, South Africa. Israel and the US had walked out of that conference to protest the venomous anti-Jewish atmosphere.
"We will have plans in place so that if it becomes clear that the conduct of the proceedings is degenerating and is getting to a point that we saw back in 2001 in Durban, then of course we will be ready to consider a range of options, including up to walking out of the Conference," a Foreign Office official said on Friday.
The Foreign Office also said it was concerned with the presence of Ahmadinejad.
"I'm sure you're aware President Ahmadinejad is going to be attending and will speak to the conference on Monday afternoon. It goes without saying that's one speaker in particular that we are anxious about in terms of what the content of his speech might amount to."
Hinting that the UK may walk out of his speech, the Foreign Office said: "Again that's a judgment we will have to make depending on just what it is he says and how he says it and what we actually think it garners in the conference room."
A Foreign Office spokesman said Britain would try to guard against "an unacceptable attempt to deny the Holocaust"; Iran has tried to eliminate any mention of the Holocaust in the conference's final statement.
Speaking on customary condition of anonymity, the official said Britain hoped the meeting would spur a "collective will to fight racism."
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, who is hosting the conference, said she was upset that the US had opted not to attend.
"I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States' decision not to attend," Pillay said.
She conceded some countries were focusing solely on one or two issues to the detriment of the fight against intolerance, but said it was essential that the issue of racism be tackled globally.
Explaining the US decision to boycott "with regret," Obama said in Trinidad on Sunday: "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."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman echoed Obama's remarks, calling it "a hypocrisy summit."
"The fact that a racist like Ahmadinejad is the main speaker proves the true aim and nature of the conference," Lieberman said.
Israel could not ignore the fact that the Geneva conference was taking place on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, he added.
Ahmadinejad, who plans to address the gathering at its opening session Monday, was greeted by Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz on Sunday upon his arrival in Geneva, much to the chagrin of Israeli and Jewish leaders.
The Ahmadinejad visit to Switzerland amounts to "a pathetic meeting that embarrasses the host," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post.
The respect accorded to the Iranian president "is harmful at a time when all the West is moving away from legitimizing an outright Holocaust denier who is busy planning the next Holocaust," Ayalon said.
The Jewish community in Geneva plans to hold a special event on Monday for Holocaust Memorial Day that is also intended to be a protest against Durban II.
At the same time, anti-Israel groups plan an event comparing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza with that of the Warsaw Ghetto.
But the simmering tensions as the pro- and anti-Israel groups gather to stage protests around the conference were not publicly evident in the city or in the UN building where the conference is set to take place.
Here flags flew and water sprouted from the nearby fountain, where the only activity that could be seen was a mother playing with her child in the fountain's puddles.
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."
Jonny Paul and AP contributed to this report.