(CNSNews.com) – Five months after a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the Obama administration to announce immediately its intention to stay away from a United Nations racism conference to be held in September, the State Department announced Wednesday that it would not attend the event.
The plan has stoked controversy both because earlier such events have been marred by anti-Israel rhetoric, and because of the conference’s venue and timing – in New York City, just days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
The decision to avoid “Durban III” came in a letter from State Department official Joseph Macmanus to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who spearheaded opposition in the Senate to U.S. participation in the conference.
Macmanus wrote that the so-called “Durban process” over the past decade “included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and we did not want to see that commemorated” in New York in September.
His comment was essentially a reprise of a statement made by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice after the U.S. last December voted against a General Assembly resolution approving the conference. (The measure passed by a vote of 104-22, with 33 countries abstaining.)
Gillibrand and 17 other senators, Republican and Democrat, wrote to Rice in December, urging the U.S. to send a signal to the international community “by making clear now that the United States will not participate in this gathering.”
A similar call came at the time from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who urged the administration to announce a boycott and “encourage other responsible nations to do the same.”
Last week Ros-Lehtinen reiterated the appeal, noting that Canada and Israel had long since announced their intention to stay away.
“It is long past time for the U.S. to do the same,” she said on May 24. “The administration must pledge publicly and unequivocally that the U.S. will neither participate in nor fund” the conference.
It is not clear why the administration waited five months after voting against the resolution to make Wednesday’s announcement.
The last time it decided to withdraw from a U.N. racism event – in Geneva in 2009 – that announcement followed many months of engagement aimed at salvaging a process it viewed as flawed.
This time, the U.S. has not been similarly engaged in lobbying for an improved outcome, according to Macmanus’ letter.
“The United States delegation in New York has not been involved in the formal negotiations on the modalities resolution or the outcome document and has had a note-taker only in these proceedings,” he wrote.
Governments and organizations hostile to Israel used the two previous U.N. racism summits – in Durban, South Africa in 2001 and the 2009 follow-up in Geneva – to single the Jewish state out for harsh condemnation, while the U.S. also faced criticism.
So virulent were the attacks against Israel and the U.S. in Durban that the Bush administration, which had already downgraded its participation in anticipation of trouble, withdrew the U.S. delegation in protest.
Israel also pulled out of the conference, which was quickly overshadowed by the al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. several days later.
Dubbed “Durban II,” the 2009 event was intended to review the progress made in combating racism since the original conference. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the podium to attack Israel, claiming that the Holocaust was a “pretext” for the establishment of the Jewish state.
Nine other Western countries joined the U.S. in boycotting Durban II, and more than 20 European delegations staged a symbolic walk-out during Ahmadinejad’s speech.
Since this year’s “Durban III” conference is to be held on Sept. 22, there is a strong likelihood that Ahmadinejad will again attend. The annual general debate of the General Assembly in New York is scheduled for Sept. 21-23, and the Iranian leader has attended that event every year since taken office in 2005, using his annual U.N. platform to deliver fiery anti-U.S. and anti-Israel speeches.
According to the resolution passed in December, September’s racism conference aims to adopt “a short and concise political declaration aimed at mobilizing political will at the national, regional and international levels for the full and effective implementation of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action [DDPA].”
The DDPA, adopted in Durban in 2001, is at the heart of the controversy. It provocatively identified “Palestinian people under foreign occupation” as victims of racism, in line with the international campaign to label Israel an “apartheid” state.
The U.S. based its decision to stay away from Durban II on the fact that it embraced the DDPA. Durban III will do so again.