Kouchner makes a promise
Photo: AFP
Ahmadinejad in Geneva
Photo: Reuters

France attending Durban II

Following late-night discussions, Foreign Minister Kouchner says French representative to UN conference on racism will walk out 'immediately' if event turns into platform for racist comments against Israel. US, at least seven other countries are boycotting conference

The French foreign minister said Monday morning that France would take part in a UN racism conference boycotted by several Western nations.


But Bernard Kouchner said the French representative would walk out "immediately" if the conference turns into a platform for racist comments against Israel.


France left the decision to the last minute. The conference opens in Geneva on Monday.


Kouchner said on France-Info radio Monday morning that the decision was made after late-night discussions. He said the French ambassador to UN agencies in Geneva would represent France.


The United States and at least eight other countries are boycotting the UN's second world racism conference, out of concern that Islamic countries will demand that it denounce Israel and ban criticism of Islam.


The latest country to pull out of the conference was Poland. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski informed the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw of his country's decision.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday defended the disputed conference text as "carefully balanced" and said the conference was necessary to confront simmering racial tensions that could otherwise trigger social unrest and violence.


"I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside. I hope they will not do so for long," he told the Geneva meeting.


The administration of President Barack Obama, America's first black head of state, announced Saturday that it would boycott "with regret" the week-long meeting in Geneva, which already is experiencing much of the bickering and political infighting that marred the 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa.


The Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand announced their boycotts Sunday, while Australia, Canada, Israel and Italy already had said they would not attend.


EU spokeswoman Christine Hohmann said Brussels would take part in the UN's anti-racism conference in Geneva as an observer in order to make sure no "red lines" are crossed.


Hohmann said the conference's final draft was not ideal, but the result of a compromise, and added that the EU would respond appropriately to any unacceptable statement made during the conference.


Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the failure of the 27-member European Union to agree a common position on the meeting was a huge disappointment.


"Going there and acting as a silent witness does not pay inthe end: You only risk becoming complicit to it," he said in an interview with Italian daily Il Giornale.


Obama, speaking in Trinidad on Sunday after attending the Summit of the Americas, said: "I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe."


But he said the language of the UN's draft declaration risked a reprise of Durban, during which "folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive."


"We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all of the language from 2001, that's not something we can sign up for," Obama said.


"Hopefully some concrete steps come out of the conference that we can partner with other countries on to actually reduce discrimination around the globe, but this wasn't an opportunity to do it," he said.


At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI said the conference is needed to eliminate racial intolerance around the world. Asia News, a Catholic news agency that is part of the missionary arm of the Vatican, said of the pope's comment:


"The Holy See is distancing itself from the criticisms of some Western countries."


UN Human rights chief Navi Pillay, who is hosting the conference, said she was "shocked and deeply disappointed" by the US Decision not to attend.


She conceded some countries were focusing solely on one or two issues to the detriment of the fight against intolerance, but said it is essential that the issue of racism be tackled globally.


The major sticking points regarding the proposed final UN declaration are its implied criticism of Israel and an attempt by Muslim governments to ban all criticism of Islam, Sharia law, the prophet Muhammad and other tenets of their faith.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who repeatedly has called for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust - is slated to speak on the first day. He arrived in Geneva on Sunday evening and met privately with President Hans-Rudolf Merz of Switzerland, the country that represents the diplomatic interests of the United States in the Islamic republic.


Germany: Not an easy decision

The pullout of Germany is significant since it has played a leading role in UN anti-racism efforts as a result of its troubled historical legacy. In recent meetings, it has expressed dismay about some governments' attempts to downplay the significance of the Holocaust.


Germany said Sunday that it made its boycott decision after consulting with other European Union nations. "This decision was not easy," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "As in Durban in 2001, this conference could be abused by others as a platform for their interests. We cannot accept that," he said.


The bland UN draft statement does not mention Israel by name, but it reaffirms the Durban statement and its reference to the plight of Palestinians. That document was agreed after the United States and Israel walked out over attempts to liken Zionism - the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land - to racism.


Israel and Jewish groups have lobbied hard against Western participation in the meeting, arguing that the presence alone of American and European negotiators would give legitimacy to what they fear could become an anti-Semitic gathering.


On Sunday, Israel's Foreign Ministry thanked the boycotters and predicted the conference would "once again serve as a platform to denigrate Israel and single it out for criticism."


Still, after years of preparations there appears little evidence to validate these fears. The statement of 2001 that is so contentious now was cheered in Israel at the time, as it recognized the Jewish state's right to security.


Regarding its boycott, the Obama administration said it could not endorse any statement that singled out Israel or included passages demanding a ban on language considered an "incitement" of religious hatred. Such calls "run counter to the US Commitment to unfettered free speech," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.


Many Muslim nations want curbs to free speech to prevent insults to Islam they claim have proliferated since the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. They cite the 2005 cartoons of Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper that sparked riots in the Muslim world.


European countries also have criticized the meeting for focusing heavily on the West and ignoring problems of racism and intolerance in the developing world.


The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report


פרסום ראשון: 04.20.09, 10:02
 new comment
This will delete your current comment