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Racist threat

nrt/th/md, AFP/APApril 19, 2009

Germany announced it is boycotting a controversial United Nations anti-racism conference that begins in Geneva on Monday.

A growing boycott by Western nations is undermining the UN conferenceImage: AP

The German Foreign Ministry said late Sunday that Berlin would join in boycotting a United Nations conference on racism, set to start Monday in Geneva.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the decision was made out of concern that the event would be "misused as a platform for ulterior interests," as happened at a 2001 UN anti-racism meeting in Durban, South Africa.

The five-day Durban Review Conference is intended to take stock of international efforts to combat intolerance since the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which saw the United States and Israel walk out over claims of anti-Semitism.

European diplomats fear that this year's conference may also take an aggressively anti-Israeli, anti-Western line given that preparations were dominated by Libya, Cuba and Iran.

A draft declaration circulated earlier this year made Israel responsible for the entire Middle East conflict, while human rights violations in Muslim countries were largely ignored.

Differences persist

Der iranische Präsident Ahmadinejad fliegt nach New York
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a history of denying the Holocaust

Negotiators in Geneva said on Friday, April 17, that most Western and Muslim states had agreed to a revised declaration that ironed out the most controversial issues linked to religious discrimination and the Middle East.

The United States pulled out of the meeting on Saturday because of differences over Israel and the right to free speech, while Israel itself renewed its call for a boycott, describing the UN conference as a "tragic farce." The Netherlands, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and Canada also said they would not attend.

"Officially, it is aimed at denouncing racism, but it has invited a Holocaust denier who has called for the destruction of Israel," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy said.

Levy's remarks were a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is due to address the conference on April 20, the anniversary of Hitler's birth.

The Iranian leader, who is the only prominent head of state expected to attend the conference, has sparked international outrage by repeatedly calling the Holocaust a "myth" and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Last minute decisions

Frank-Walter Steinmeier im Bundestag
Steinmeier made the decision not to attend followed a conference call with his EU colleaguesImage: AP

France warned Monday that Europeans would walk out of the event if Ahmadinejad makes "anti-Semitic accusations."

"We will have to be very clear. We will not tolerate any slips," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio.

He warned Ahmadinejad that "if he utters racist or anti-Semitic accusations, we will leave the room immediately."

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said in a statement that countries with questionable human rights records were seeking to abuse the gathering "to place religion ahead of human rights and unnecessarily curtail freedom of speech, to negate discrimination against homosexuality, and to place Israel alone in the accused bench".

"The conference is too important for it to be abused for political ends and attacks on the West," Verhagen said. "The Netherlands will not be a party to that."

The Dutch decision follows much earlier boycott announcements issued by Italy, Canada and Australia.

British confidence

Rassismus Konferenz in Genf
Israel has slammed the UN conference as a "tragic farce"Image: AP

Britain, on the other hand, is expected to attend the Geneva summit.

"We're watching how things develop," a Foreign Office spokesman told AFP news agency. "It's still our intention to attend."

The spokesman said Britain wanted the conference "to get a collective will to fight racism now," although it was "under no illusions about the scale of this challenge."

"We wouldn't be able to support a process that was skewed against the West or other countries," the spokesman said, adding that Britain had certain "red lines" on the issues involved that it would stick to.

"We have argued for the concluding document to have sufficient (content) on the Holocaust and combating anti-Semitism."

"We would find it unacceptable if the process seeks to deny the Holocaust."