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UN Conference on Racism Opens Monday


Diplomats reached agreement on Friday on a draft declaration for next week's United Nations conference on racism, although it is still unclear whether the United States and the European Union will attend.

United Nations officials say following deliberations in Geneva they expect wide agreement on a declaration when the conference on racism opens on Monday.

U.S. officials say the Obama administration has not decided yet whether to attend the conference, saying they still have concerns with the draft document.

The meeting is a follow-up to a 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa.

The United States and Israel walked out of those talks over an attempt by some participants to link Zionism - the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land - to racism.

Many human rights organizations are urging the United States to participate in the conference.

Iain Levine is the program director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It would be a grave mistake not to attend the conference. We feel that the document has improved considerably since negotiations first started and that we actually have a chance now to make the Durban Review Conference into a serious contribution to the international fight against racism," Levine said.

The United States has expressed concerns that the declaration from the racism conference could lead to restrictions on freedom of expression.

Many Muslim nations want curbs to free speech to prevent what they say are insults to Islam.

Riots erupted across the Muslim world in 2006 after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Levine says it would be very unfortunate if the Obama administration declines to attend. "It would be ironic that a man who became the first African-American President of the United States, it would be ironic if he was not to commit his administration to fight racism globally. He has himself become, I think, such a personal inspiration to so many victims of racism worldwide and we would want to see him and his administration really engage with this process," Levine said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the conference and he has repeatedly stirred outrage by calling the Holocaust a myth and saying Israel should be wiped off the map.

Levine says western nations should stand up to the Iranian president. "There is no question that he is a very polarizing and divisive figure. There is no question he has used extremely inflammatory language in the past. But our message to governments would be do not cede the ground to Ahmadinejad and those like him. Stand firm, stand firm for the principles of the international fight against racism and if he says something objectionable stand up to him," Levine said.

The Geneva conference is designed to review progress in fighting racism since the meeting in South Africa eight years ago.

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