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U.S. To Resume Observer Status At UN Rights Council

A UN Human Rights Council session at UN offices in Geneva in March 2008
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States has said it will not attend a UN conference on racism unless the wording of a document it considers anti-Israeli is changed, but it will resume observer status in the UN Human Rights Council.

In a reversal from Bush administration policy, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said on February 27 that the United States would attend the current UN Human Rights Council session, even though the body's anti-Israeli "trajectory is disturbing."

"Our participation as an observer is a sign of the commitment of the (Obama) administration to advancing the cause of human rights in the multilateral arena," said Wood.

The previous administration gave up its observer status because of the council's views on close U.S. ally Israel, but Wood said it served U.S. interests now to be there.

"It needs fundamental change to do more to promote and protect the human rights of people around the world, and that it should end its repeated and unbalanced criticisms of Israel," Wood said of the council.

On the racism conference to be held in Geneva, Wood said the text of a document being negotiated for the meeting had gone from "bad to worse" and was not salvageable.

"As a result, the United States will not engage in further negotiations on this text, nor will we participate in a conference based on this text," said Wood, adding the Obama administration would reconsider its decision if the wording of the document changed.

The decision to end U.S. involvement came one day before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves on her first trip to the Middle East in her new job, including stops in Israel, and removes a likely source of friction during the visit.

A U.S. delegation took part in negotiations this month with 30 other countries to try to win changes in the conference's final document, but said at the time the United States would not necessarily attend the conference.

Critics of the April conference say Arab states plan to use it to slam Israel. They also have focused on sections they say would limit freedom of religion and speech.

"It must not single out any one country or conflict, nor embrace the troubling concept of 'defamation of religion,'" Wood said of the document.

The United States and Israel walked out of the first UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, days before the September 11 attacks, to protest efforts to pass a resolution comparing Zionism to racism.

Israel has called for a boycott of the April conference, and Canada also has said it will not attend.

The decision to bow out of the process drew praise from some U.S. politicians and Jewish groups.

U.S. officials said attending the planning sessions was in line with President Barack Obama's promise of a more engaged diplomatic approach and more cooperation with the United Nations.