Kouchner says rep will walk out if event becomes platform for racist, anti-Israel comments.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Monday announced that his country would not join Poland, Germany and the Netherlands in boycotting the controversial UN anti-racism conference in Geneva amidst fear that the event will descend into an anti-Semitic debacle.
Canada, Israel, Italy and the US had previously stated their intention not to attend the weeklong conference, dubbed Durban II, because the text the UN intends to ratify there solely singles out Israel and contains problematic clauses regarding free speech.
At the last moment on Sunday evening, Australia and New Zealand also said they would not go as well.
A number of key European countries that had hoped take a unified stance on the anti-racism conference, also waited until Sunday and early Monday morning before taking a stand.
Germany, Poland and the Netherlands said they would boycott the event while Great Britain and France warily said they would attend.
Kouchner, said, however, that the French representative will walk out "immediately" if the conference turns into a platform for racist comments against Israel. In an interview with France-Info radio Monday morning, he said that the decision was made after late-night discussions and that the French ambassador to UN agencies in Geneva would represent France.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday night urged those attending the conference to "stand up for the effective fight against racism and ethnic discrimination."
The event is widely expected to repeat the inflammatory, anti-Israel rhetoric that marred the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that met in Durban, South Africa. Israel and the US had walked out of that conference to protest its anti-Semitism.
Durban II is billed by the UN as a follow up conference to the 2001 meeting and the text of the 2009 conference re-affirms the 2001 conclusions.
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."
But 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."
A UN spokesman for the conference Rupert Colville told The Jerusalem 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 them is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who is expected to address the gathering later today. His country has donated funds to Durban II and sat on the planning committee.
Great Britain's Foreign Office said that although it had decided to attend, it was concerned with Ahmadinejad's speech.
"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 on Saturday opted to stick to its decision last month not to come to Geneva.
"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.
He noted that Ahmadinejad was scheduled to address the gathering today, which is the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon lashed out at Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz who greeted Ahmadinejad upon his arrival in Geneva Sunday, much to the chagrin of Israeli and Jewish leaders.
The Ahmadinejad visit to Switzerland amounts to "a pathetic meeting that embarrasses the host," Ayalon told the 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.
Jonny Paul, JPost.com staff and AP contributed to this report
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