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Australia, Netherlands Join Boycott Of Racism Conference

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith

GENEVA (Reuters) -- Australia and the Netherlands have joined a growing Western boycott of a United Nations conference on racism over fears it will be used as a platform for unfair criticism of Israel.

The United States announced on April 18 that it would stay away, citing "objectionable" language in a text prepared for the Geneva summit, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address on its opening day on April 20.

Canada and Israel have said they would sit out the meeting, which the United Nations organized to help heal the wounds of its last major race summit in 2001. The United States and Israel walked out of that South African meeting after Arab states sought to define Zionism as racist.

Australia said it shared U.S. concerns about the declaration for the follow-up conference.

Although it omitted any reference to Israel and the Middle East, the negotiated text "reaffirms" a declaration adopted at the 2001 Durban meeting that singled out the Jewish state.

"Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the Review Conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views," Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in a statement.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said on April 19 that he would not attend either, citing concerns Islamic states would use the U.N. forum to try to bar "incitement to religious hatred" or "defamation of religion" -- a concept borne of the 2006 controversy over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

"Some countries that still have a long way to go in the human rights domain are misusing the summit to put religion above people's rights and to unnecessarily restrict freedom of speech," Verhagen said in a statement.

He described the conference document as "unacceptable" and a "missed chance" to fight racism and discrimination.

The European Union is meeting late on April 19 to determine a common position on whether to send delegations to Geneva. Britain has already said it would take part in the meeting but without a high-level official.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has made ensuring wide participation at the "Durban II" meeting one of her top goals in the job she took over from Canada's Louise Arbour last year.

The absence of Western powers in Geneva is a blow to the United Nations and could undermine future diplomatic efforts to tackle sensitive questions of race, ethnicity and religion, which Pillay has warned can explode into violence if ignored.

But Jewish and Israeli groups celebrated the boycott as a way to avoid a repeat of the 2001 Durban meeting and reduce the audience size for Iran's president, who has previously said Israel should be "wiped off the map" and questioned whether the Holocaust happened.

Ahmadinejad's address will coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Given his abysmal record on human rights in Iran and his support for terrorist organizations, it is simply appalling that President Ahmadinejad will address a major U.N. conference intended to combat racism," the American Jewish Committee said.