WASHINGTON // Top US officials and Jewish leaders are pushing for a wider boycott of a UN anti-racism conference in Geneva next month after the United States decided to bow out of the meeting, citing unfair criticism of Israel and disagreements over what constitutes racism. A spokesman for the US state department announced last week that the United States has decided not to participate in the Durban Review Conference - dubbed "Durban II" - calling a working draft of the conference's declaration on racism "not salvageable".
Since then, prominent figures have called on leading democracies to follow suit, which would create an absence that would weaken the talks considerably. Howard Berman, the chairman of the House of Representatives' foreign affairs committee, said that he hoped the US withdrawal would "galvanise 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".
Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister of Israel, which has also boycotted the talks, said in a statement that the United States "should be an example to other countries that share our values". She called the conference "blatantly anti-Semitic". The World Jewish Congress, an international organisation representing Jewish communities in 92 countries, sent a letter to democratic leaders asking them to boycott the "shameful event". And the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called on European leaders not to attend the meeting, which they said was being "hijacked" by opponents of Israel.
Canada will also not attend the meeting, but several other democracies - including France, the Netherlands and Australia - have voiced concerns of their own. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, said last year he was wary of embracing an anti-Israel agenda and would "argue for Europe to pull out if its legitimate demands aren't respected". The Dutch foreign affairs minister, Maxime Verhagen, told the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday he was "deeply disturbed by the turn this event is taking".
Faced with the growing concerns, the UN high commissioner on human rights, Navi Pillay, called the US boycott "unwarranted". "Narrow, parochial interests and reflexive partisanship must be cast aside in the interest of a greater common good," she said in a speech before the Human Rights Council this week. "Failure to do so may reverberate negatively on the full spectrum of human rights work and mechanisms for years to come."
Some human right groups said they also were disappointed by the US boycott. "We think the US can accomplish much more by staying at the table and trying to work jointly on these issues rather than issuing ultimatums as they did," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in New York, who nonetheless took issue with some language in the conference's declaration. "If the [Americans] are not willing to do the work to come up with the shorter, better document, there is a question mark as to who is expected to do it."
Still other human rights advocates applauded the decision to back out of the conference, including Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington. "This is not about human rights; this is about fomenting racism and pretending it's human rights," said Ms Bayefsky, who called the meeting an "anti-Semitic hate-fest". During the first round of talks - held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 - Israel and the United States walked out over objections to draft resolutions that likened Zionism to racism and criticised Israel for its "racist" policies. EU countries also objected to language singling out Israel, but stuck with the talks to negotiate a final document with less inflammatory language.
The final draft was toned down - it mentions Israel only twice and makes no reference to Zionism - but Israel remained the lone country identified by name. This year's conference, which is being billed as a progress report since the 2001 gathering, presented the first significant test for Barack Obama in dealing with the UN on issues related to human rights. Many had high hopes that Mr Obama, the first black US president, would bring a renewed commitment to the talks.
Some saw it as a promising sign that his UN ambassador, Susan Rice, dispatched envoys to Geneva for preparatory meetings, a move that Israel watched closely. In announcing the boycott, however, Robert Wood, a state department spokesman, said contentious language had been added to the conference's declaration, and that it went "from bad to worse". In addition to singling out Israel, the document now seeks to impose limits on the "defamation of religion", which some see as a threat to freedom of expression.
Mr Wood said the United States objected to the added provision, which was inserted at the urging of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The United States and some European countries have also taken issue with a provision that calls on nations to pay reparations for slavery. "A conference based on this text would be a missed opportunity to speak clearly about the persistent problem of racism," Mr Wood said in a statement, leaving open the possibility that the United States could return to the table if the declaration is revised.
Mr Wood announced, however, that the United States would participate in the UN Human Rights Council's current session, but only in an observer capacity. The Bush administration had left the council, citing several human rights abusers among its members and its anti-Israel agenda. Although Mr Wood acknowledged the council's "unbalanced" criticisms of Israel, he said being "part of the conversation" would further US interests.