(CNSNews.com) – The controversy-plagued United Nations racism conference known as Durban II got underway in Geneva on Monday, with at least nine Western countries absent and others indicating that they may walk out if they consider it necessary.
Addressing the opening segment, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced disappointment that some countries were staying away.
While it may be easier to criticize efforts “from afar,” he said, it did not advance the cause.
The list of boycotting countries lengthened over the weekend, with the U.S. giving final notice that it would definitely not take part. Others that have confirmed they will not attend are Canada, Israel, Australia, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and New Zealand.
Other European countries were planning to send low-level delegations, and warned they could be withdrawn. Of particular concern for many is the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – one of just a handful of government leaders attending – and fears that he may use the opportunity to repeat his numerous past attacks against Israel.
Before flying to Geneva Ahmadinejad told reporters that the “Zionist regime” was the main instigator of racist ideology, the Iranian news agency ISNA reported.
“Today the behavior of the U.S. officials and Europe’s parties and governments are dominated by Zionists, they have monetary and financial systems of the world and have kept nations in poverty and direct their money and fortune to their pockets,” he said.
ISNA said Ahmadinejad’s itinerary includes addressing the racism conference, meeting with pro-Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and meetings with Ban, Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) chief Ekmeledin Ihsanoglu and Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz.
The aim of the April 20-24 conference is to review progress made in combating racism since the World Conference on Racism (WCAR), held in Durban, South Africa in September 2001. That event was overshadowed by the row over attempts to label Israel an “apartheid” state, and the U.S. and Israel walked out.
Ahead of the 2009 gathering, a difficult and drawn-out preparatory process has been dominated by a OIC-instigated focus on Israel and attempts by the Islamic bloc to limit criticism of Islam – or what it calls “defamation of religion.”
Negotiators sought to find consensus over the language in the draft document which the conference is meant to endorse, and in recent weeks removed direct references to the Israeli-Palestinian and religious defamation issues.
Indirect references remained in the hammered-out text, however.
Crucially, the document reaffirms the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA) adopted in 2001 – a document which “singles out one particular conflict,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a weekend statement.
“Its inclusion in the review conference document has the same effect as inserting that original text into the current document and re-adopting it,” he said.
On the second major contentious issue, although the “defamation of religion” references had been removed, terms such as “negative stereotyping of religions” and religion-related “incitement” remain, raising the same concerns about threats to free speech.
‘Capitulating to radicals’
President Obama has faced growing calls in recent weeks from African American, left-wing, pro-U.N. and other advocacy groups to send a delegation to participate but has said little publicly about the event.
On Sunday, speaking in Trinidad, he said, “I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe.”
But, Obama said, the U.S. had warned in the run-up to the conference that it could not sign up for the event if it adopted language from 2001, when people had “expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive.”
“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.”
Pakistani ambassador Zamir Akram, who coordinates OIC activities in Geneva, voiced surprise at the U.S. decision. He said a conscious effort had been made to produce a balanced document, but added that the OIC could not ignore discriminatory practices against Palestinians.
Human Rights Watch criticized the U.S. and others that have decided not to attend, saying there was no justification for the decision.
“Governments boycotting the conference have decided to put the concerns of victims last,” said the group’s Geneva advocacy director, Juliette de Rivero. “Instead of isolating radical voices, governments have capitulated to them.”
News that the U.S. and others would not attend came as a blow to U.N. officials, and the world body’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said on Sunday she was “shocked and deeply disappointed.”
“A handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism … on a daily basis all across the world,” she said.
Critics of the Durban process say that because of the Israel-centric focus of the 2001 event, the concerns of other aggrieved groups such as the Dalits (“untouchables”) of India and the Roma of eastern Europe were sidelined.
“By breaching its promise of preaching tolerance and by ignoring the worst human rights tragedies of the day, Durban I failed not only the Jewish people – the direct targets of the Durban hate festival – but also the victims of racism and intolerance around the world whose cries were never heard,” said Irwin Cotler, Canadian lawmaker and counsel for genocide victims, who is in Geneva this week for a parallel human rights summit.
Given the controversy marring the WCAR and an accompanying NGO forum, the U.N. has taken pains to avoid a repeat, drawing up strict guidelines for NGOs in particular and saying that the dissemination of “offensive material” would not be permitted.
Far fewer NGOs are expected in Geneva than originally expected. Some 10,000 NGO representatives were in Durban in 2001 but as of Friday only a quarter of that number had registered for Durban II.
Several hundred pro-Palestinian activists held meetings in Geneva at the weekend to strategize on ways to solidify the campaign of identifying Israel with apartheid , to increase pressure on Israel through boycotts and divestment, and to facilitate international legal action against Israeli leaders.