Livni praises US boycott of Durban II

Senior US official says draft document for UN anti-racism summit has gone from bad to worse.

Durban 248.88 ap (photo credit: )
Durban 248.88 ap
(photo credit: )
The US announced Friday it will not participate in the UN's World Conference Against Racism, based on the current text of the conference's declaration singling out Israel. American officials left open the possibility of attending should the posture toward Israel change, but expressed little hope that this would happen. State Department spokesman Robert Wood noted that America had attended preparatory talks on the conference, which follows up on the 2001 conference held in Durban, South Africa, in hopes of improving the text of the summary document to be presented at the conclusion of the conference. "The document being negotiated has gone from bad to worse, and the current text of the draft outcome document is not salvageable," Wood declared. "As a result, the United States will not engage in further negotiations on this text, nor will we participate in a conference based on this text," he said. "A conference based on this text would be a missed opportunity to speak clearly about the persistent problem of racism." Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni praised the US decision, saying the conference would be "anti-Semitic and anti-Israel under the mask of fighting racism." The decision "must lead the way for more countries that share the same values" to make similar moves, she said. Likud MK Silvan Shalom also applauded the US move, saying "this decision highlights the American government's commitment to Israel." He called the move "a sign for the entire world" of the "close relationship" between Israel and the US. The State Department had sent two US representatives to Geneva - Betty King, a former ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council, and Felice Gaer, the chairwoman of the US Commission on various countries and attended the negotiations, a US official said. Wood said the US would consider reengaging should the language improve, and a reaffirmation of the 2001 declaration be dropped. Jewish groups assailed the 2001 declaration for containing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic language, which prompted the US delegation to walk out of the conference. Canada and Israel are already boycotting the "Durban II" conference, to be held on April 20-25 in Geneva. At the same time, Wood said the US would stay involved as an observer at the UN's Human Rights Council, a body the US has long criticized because of its focus on attacking Israel while overlooking human rights abuses elsewhere. "We share the concerns of many that the council's trajectory is disturbing, that it needs fundamental change to do more to promote and protect the human rights of people around the world, and that it should end its repeated and unbalanced criticisms of Israel," he said. "We believe, however, it furthers our interests and will do more both to achieve these ends and advance human rights if we are part of the conversation and present at the council's proceedings." He said that in addition to the World Conference on Racism's problematic language singling out one country, the American delegation to the pre-conference consultations was also unsuccessful in altering language on "defamation of religion," which the US sees as problematic on free speech grounds. Woods also noted concerns about language on reparations for slavery. A large number of Jewish groups rushed to welcome the decision not to participate in the conference. Several had expressed disappointment that the US had participated in the preliminary talks, which they felt were not likely to produce results, though others said they understood the American desire to attempt to use diplomacy to resolve differences and forge relationships with the countries involved. "The issue of engagement is front and center for this administration, and the fact that they wanted to see for themselves, find out for themselves, should have been expected, but clearly they realized that this could not be changed," said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International, which has been carefully tracking the Durban II preparations. "Knowing that you can't fix it is an important realization," Mariaschin said. He didn't anticipate active negotiating behind the scenes for a revised Durban II document. "I don't think the administration would have made this move today if there were still a chance to eliminate the language - if they were going to water it down, then they would have continued to go over the next several weeks," Mariaschin said. He said he expected the US decision to trigger responses from European countries and others, including Australia, in the next week. "It sends a message to the Europeans that they really should follow suit - there should be no excuses now," he said. Mariaschin also said the decision sends a "clear message" that "the administration is not going to tolerate business as usual in these multilateral forums" and also gives a signal to other countries "that have been waiting for us" to make a decision that they can fall in line behind the United States. "While we are never pleased to walk away from international discussions in critical areas like racism, we credit the Obama administration for its good faith effort. We applaud the administration for sticking to its principles and recognizing and refusing to be part of a repeat of Durban I, a blatantly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic free-for-all," said Moishe Smith, president of B'nai B'rith International. The chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Howard Berman of California, also praised the decision. "I welcomed and urged the US effort to engage forcefully in trying to prevent the conference from singling out Israel in any way, but am disappointed that the international community is unwilling to stand up to those who are once again hijacking the conference for political expediency," he said. "I hope that the administration's announcement will galvanize like-minded countries and those who have been sitting on the sidelines to end this mindless march toward an outcome that serves none of the victims of racism, xenophobia and intolerance." In addition, Berman said he looked forward to working with the administration as it engages with the Human Rights Council to try to address critical human rights issues, "instead of the counterproductive, politically-motivated debates that prevent the council from being a positive force in promoting human rights around the globe." Allison Hoffman in New York, AP and staff contributed to this report.