The Obama administration on Monday defended its decision not to attend the United Nations Conference on racism in Geneva, which included in its opening session a sharp rhetorical attack on Israel by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Human rights groups contend the boycott by the United States and other countries undermines the fight against racism.
Obama administration officials say the spectacle of the first day of the conference, marked by the Iranian leader's verbal attack on Israel, only vindicates the decision to stay away.
The United States withdrew from the first U.N. racism conference in Durban in 2001, when it became clear the meeting - nominally aimed at combating hatred - mainly had turned into a forum for attacks on Israel and Zionism.
The outgoing Bush administration said it would not attend preparatory meetings for the Geneva review conference, known as Durban Two, but the Obama administration reversed that decision in hopes of reforming draft documents reminiscent of the tone of the first Durban meeting.
In its announcement on Saturday that it would not attend, the Obama administration acknowledged progress in preparatory work on a Geneva text. But at a briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said there had not been enough to merit U.S. participation.
"We set out very specific conditions and sent a high-level team to see if the conference was serious about the issue of racism and intolerance, rather than to be political propaganda," said Robert Gibbs. "After working to try to address those shortcomings, the administration decided it could not and should not be a part of what we saw happening today. This president believes very strongly in dealing with racism and intolerance. But I don't think it was in our national interest to be part of the conference that's going on right now."
Gibbs said the Iranian President's Geneva speech, in which he called U.S. ally Israel "a most cruel, repressive and racist regime," was obviously hateful rhetoric and one of the reasons why the Obama administration decided that taking part in the conference "would not be a wise thing to do."
The Ahmadinejad speech triggered a walkout by a number of Western delegates at the meeting. The Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand announced over the weekend they were joining the United States, Canada and Israel in not participating in the Durban Two conference.
The decisions by major countries not to attend were criticized by human rights groups, which argue that such boycotts undermine U.N. efforts to fight racism.
Iain Levine, Program Director for New York-based Human Rights Watch says the best response to the Iranian leader's inflammatory rhetoric is to stay in Geneva and rebut it.
"It was a terrible speech," said Levine. "It was hate-filled. It was provocative; it was inflammatory. It was a terrible speech. But it shows exactly why the United States and other government should have been at the conference. What we needed, as we saw from the Norwegian foreign minister, was an immediate rebuttal. We need people to stand up and say that the global fight against racism is not going to be defined by a man so filled with hatred, by a man who presides over a government that oppresses its own minorities. We want to see a global fight against racism led by governments who really care about the issue."
Human Rights Watch says the draft document for Geneva contained no reference to Israel or the Middle East, and upholds free speech rights - contrary to assertions by Obama administration officials that language in it against incitement runs counter to the U.S. commitment to unfettered free speech.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pallay, expressed shock and deep disappointment over the U.S. decision not to attend. But it was welcomed by U.S. conservatives and some Jewish groups.
The ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said she was pleased that the United States stood firm in refusing to legitimize what she termed "an anti-freedom, anti-Jewish, anti-Israel hate fest."
She said all U.S. funds should be withheld from the Durban Two process.