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In Policy Shift, US Joins Preparatory UN Racism Talks

The Obama administration, in a break with its predecessor, has sent a delegation to a preparatory meeting for the second World Conference Against Racism scheduled for April in Geneva. The United States walked out of the first such conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001, contending it was mainly a forum for attacks on Israel and Zionism.

Obama administration officials are not committing to send a delegation to the actual conference in April. But they have sent a U.S. team to the preparatory meeting, saying that not doing so would leave the field open to those who would subvert the goal of combating racism.

Israel, which condemned the 2001 conference as an exercise in anti-Semitism and a sounding board for Arab political attacks against the Jewish state, had called for a boycott of the conference and the preparatory meeting this week in Geneva.

However, the Obama administration, after consulting with members of Congress and leaders of the American Jewish community, has decided to take part in the preparatory talks in an effort to bring some balance to a draft declaration being prepared for the April plenary session.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid says the new administration believes that if it is not engaged in the process, it cannot affect the outcome. "The administration wanted to highlight the fact that we are looking at this declaration, and we're taking a hard look at it. What we've seen so far is not promising. And the way to change that and make this committee work, is to go in and engage. There's no guarantee of success. We're not going in with any ideas that, having not been engaged over several years, we are going to go at this point and change it. But we are going to try to see what we can do," he said.

Duguid says he would not try to predict success or whether the United States will attend the full conference. He says the United States wants to see a balanced declaration that addresses racism around the world and provides a way forward to address the problem.

The Bush administration refused to take part in the planning meeting and voted in the U.N. General Assembly last year to protest the convening of the second Durban conference.

The Obama administration has promised a more open U.S. diplomatic approach with more reliance on the United Nations and other multilateral agencies.

The U.S. decision to attend the planning meeting was welcomed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League, a major U.S. Jewish group that says the Durban process is biased against Israel.

The U.S. team at the preparatory meeting is led by Marc Storella, Deputy Chief of the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva and includes Felicia Gaer, head of the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.