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US Still Skeptical About UN Racism Conference


State Department officials say they are still skeptical about whether a U.N.-sponsored conference against racism set for April in Geneva can be a constructive exercise. The United States walked out of the initial conference on the subject in South Africa in 2001 because of attacks on Israel, but it joined in preparatory talks for the Geneva meeting.

Officials say the U.S. team sent to the preparatory meeting in Geneva got a sympathetic hearing from many of the delegations there.

But they say the draft declaration still contains objectionable segments on Israel and other subjects, and U.S. participation in the full conference remains in doubt.

The Obama administration broke with its predecessor and sent a delegation to this week's preparatory meeting, even though the Bush administration had initially decided not to attend and had opposed the April conference altogether.

The Geneva conference is a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance held in Durban South Africa.

The United States joined Israel in walking out of that meeting because of document language about Israel and Zionism that U.S. officials considered anti-Semitic.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a delegation to the Geneva preparatory talks that included U.S. diplomats and human rights activists, including Felice Gaer, the head of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, of the American Jewish Committee.

At a news briefing Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid said the U.S. team went into the Geneva discussions with "grave concerns" about the so-called Durban process, and the lengthy draft declaration now under debate. He said the Americans got a good hearing but he was non-committal about whether the United States will attend the full conference:

"There were many things we disagreed with in the document. The document began as a very lengthy piece of work and got longer during the conference itself. The intention was to engage, and to try to make something that was flawed, better. We did not predict success, and I can't do that for you now. But we are on the record with our international partners as to where we stand on these issues," he said.

Duguid said an administration decision on whether to continue in the process will await a meeting at which the U.S. delegates will brief Secretary Clinton, and make a recommendation.

The issue of U.S. participation is controversial, with several U.S. Jewish organizations calling for a boycott and advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch saying the United States should attend the April conference, if for no other reason than to block consensus on an objectionable final declaration.

A senior official who spoke to reporters at the State Department said U.S. delegates voiced objections to several elements in the draft declaration concerning Israel, but also others including language backed by Muslim countries against defamation of religion that is widely seen as curbing free expression.

The official said he did not think the United States is "warming up" to the Durban process based on this week's discussions, saying U.S participants went in skeptical and came out still believing that the problems are difficult.

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