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April 19, 2009 00:59
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US officials said Saturday there was "no change" in the Obama administration's plan to skip this week's United Nations conference on racism despite last-minute revisions to official statements to be adopted at the gathering. A final draft of the statements, released late Friday, made changes to sections that had referred to a "hierarchy" among forms of racism, but left intact sections that the US had said would cause it to boycott the meetings. The conference is set to begin Monday in Geneva. Its planning has been dominated by efforts by Arab nations to prioritize concerns about Islamophobia and "anti-Arabism" - widely interpreted as a thinly veiled code for the treatment of Palestinians. Israel, Canada and Italy have already said they would not attend under any circumstances because of the tenor of the debate surrounding the planning, and due to the politicized nature of the event itself, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to attend. "The text is not the only or even the main thing to consider," Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, said Saturday. "The general mood is a very negative one and everybody is ignoring the main question, which is, 'Does this do good or bad to the fight against racism?'" Leshno-Yaar said the conference would be "only about politics," adding that there would be "nothing about the fight against racism." Ahmadinejad is reportedly set to meet with Switzerland's president, Hans Rudolf Merz, on Sunday, a move that has drawn sharp criticism from officials in Jerusalem. "We are appalled that the president of Switzerland should dignify with his presence the highest representative of a regime which exports extremism, hate, racism and terror to the Middle East and the rest of the world," an Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post. American officials said in February that they would not accept a final document that reaffirmed the text endorsed during the first World Conference Against Racism, which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. The US and Israel walked out of that conference over a draft resolution that singled out the Jewish state for criticism and likened Zionism to racism. The US has joined Israel in objecting to any further such references, as well as to language declaring that "incitement to racial discrimination" is illegal, something US officials fear would limit free speech. The changes released on Friday retained language reaffirming the program of action adopted at the original conference. "We still need to see more progress and we haven't seen it yet," US State Department spokesman Robert Wood told the Post before Friday's drafts were released. Press officer Andy Laine said the administration had no further comment on the new documents. "There's no change," he told the Post on Saturday. Diplomatic sources said they expected Washington to release a formal statement before the start of the conference. The European Union is still weighing its own participation. Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.

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