US still not happy with 'Durban II' draft

Ahmadinejad to attend UN anti-racism forum in Geneva; Israel, Canada, Italy plan to boycott event.

ahmadinejad waves finger around 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
ahmadinejad waves finger around 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The United States welcomed changes made to the draft document for the United Nations' anti-racism conference starting Monday in Geneva but indicated they were not sufficient for the US to change its position and attend the event, according to a statement released late Monday. "Substantial improvements have been made, including shortening the document, removing all language that singled out any one country or conflict, and removing language that embraced the concept of 'defamation of religion' and that demanded reparations for slavery," said State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood in the statement, referring to earlier objections including undue focus on Israel. "There remain, however, elements of the current draft text that continue to pose significant concerns." The statement, however, held out the possibility that the United States could "re-engage the conference process with the hope of arriving at a conference document that we can support" if additional changes were made. These include dropping its reaffirmation of the "flawed" document that resulted from the first such UN World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. Israel has been particularly troubled by the reaffirmation of the earlier document because of language singling out and criticizing the Jewish state, though all other language that referenced Israel has now been removed from the 2009 text. The wrangling over the contents of the draft outcome document for the Durban review could continue throughout the week, leaving the US presence up in the air until right before the conference begins. Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Roni Leshno Yaar told The Jerusalem Post , "We are still very far from closure on this business." The last planning session for the conference ends on Friday, April 17, just three days before the event opens on Monday, April 20. "We will continue with this game until the very last day and hour before the conference," he said. In anticipation of the State Department statement, and amidst lingering concerns that the US would participate in the Geneva meeting, several Jewish groups and members of Congress released statements calling on the Obama administration to refuse to participate rather than attend and confer legitimacy on the event. Israel, Canada and Italy have already said they will boycott the conference. "The latest conference working group draft statement is still fundamentally unacceptable. The very first clause reaffirms the hate-filled declarations of the 2001 Durban Conference, which singled out only one country in the world for condemnation - Israel," wrote Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) in a letter Monday to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When the United States and Italy followed Israel and Canada's lead, and other European countries threatened to boycott the event as well, steps were taken to amend the draft text of the conference document to stem the growing swell of opponents. In addition to those changes not going far enough, Israel is also concerned that the event will replicate the virulent anti-Semitic atmosphere of the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Israel and the US walked out of that conference in protest, though the European Union remained. News Monday that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seeks to annihilate Israel, had formally announced his intention to attend the anti-racism conference only fed those fears that Durban II would be a repeat of the 2001 event. Ahmadinejad's decision to come has complicated the issue, said Leshno Yaar, adding that the Iranian president was not coming to praise Western democracies. Now there are more questions on the agenda, Leshno Yaar noted: If those democracies attend, will they also listen to his speech or will they walk out? How will they sit in the room while Ahmadinejad is speaking against them and against Israel? The issue here goes beyond the text to the overall atmosphere of hatred that can be created, said Leshno Yaar. In 2001, the worst anti-Semitism came from the forums of the non-governmental organizations that met on the sidelines of the anti-racism conference. Already in advance of Durban II, a two-day anti-Israel NGO conference is scheduled to meet on April 18 and 19, called "The Israel Review Conference." An anti-Israel rally is also scheduled in Geneva for April 18. The American Jewish Committee sent a letter to the Obama administration last week opposing participation in the conference, given not just the text of the current documents, but the tenor of the negotiations on the text over the past several months. "As far as the official conference is concerned, we are calling on the governments, including the US administration, not to participate," said AJC associate director of international affairs Aaron Jacob, a former diplomat in Israel's UN mission. He said that even if references to the resolutions adopted in 2001 were removed from the current crop of draft documents, there would still be a problem of "the environment" of negotiations over the past few months, in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been cast as a racial issue rather than a strictly political one. Jacob said AJC had not received a response from the US State Department. The AJC was nervous about US participation because the administration's February decision to withdraw left the door open for America to change its mind if satisfactory changes were made to the text. "We're hopeful that the administration would continue to remain firm on principle and stand by allies like Canada, Italy and Israel," said David Michaels, director of UN affairs for B'nai B'rith. Michaels said B'nai B'rith would send a delegation to Geneva to monitor the proceedings whatever the final document drafts included. "We're not there to vote or to provide cover or legitimacy to developments," Michaels told the Post. "Frankly we're there to show solidarity with Israel and with the Jewish community - we won't be absent should the same players, whether member state representatives or [NGO] representatives come to this forum with signs that equate the Star of David with a swastika," Michaels added.