WASHINGTON (Agencies: 19/4/2009): – The Obama administration will boycott "with regret" a U.N. conference on racism next week over objectionable language in the meeting’s final document that could single out Israel for criticism and restrict free speech, the State Department said Saturday.
The decision follows weeks of furious internal debate and will likely please Israel and Jewish groups that lobbied against U.S. participation. But the move upset human rights advocates and some in the African-American community who had hoped that President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, would send an official delegation.
The administration had wanted to attend the April 20-25 meeting in Geneva, although it warned in late February it would not go unless significant changes were made to the draft text. Some revisions — including the removal of specific critical references to Israel and problematic passages about the defamation of religion — were negotiated for which State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the administration was "deeply grateful."
But he said the text retains troubling elements that suggest support for restrictions on free speech and an affirmation of the findings of the first World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 that the U.S cannot endorse.
The Durban meeting was dominated by quarrels over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery.
The United States, under the Bush administration, and Israel walked out over attempts to liken Zionism — the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land — to racism. The reference was later dropped, but concerns about anti-Semitism remained in the final text.
Plans to reaffirm the 2001 document were of particular concern to the Obama administration.
Pro-Israel groups in the United States vehemently opposed U.S. participation while human rights advocates and organizations like TransAfrica and members of the Congressional Black Caucus thought it was important to attend.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded Obama’s decision to boycott, saying it "underscores America’s unstinting commitment to combating intolerance and racism in all its forms and in all settings."
But Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the chair of the black caucus, said the group was "deeply dismayed."
Hours earlier, Human Rights Watch appealed for the U.S. to go, saying it "should stand with the victims of racism."