U.S. says Durban changes welcome but insufficient

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The United States commended changes in the draft document for "Durban II" but said more was needed to entice it into joining the anti-racism conference.

Jewish groups had welcomed the U.S. decision earlier this year not to attend the event reviewing the original U.N. conference in Durban in 2001. The South Africa parley had devolved into an anti-Israel and antii-Jewish free-for-all, and the review conference April 20-24 in Geneva promised more of the same. Earlier versions of the "draft outcome document" singled out Israel and called for measures against "defamation of religion," seen as a nod to Islamist extremists who seek to marginalize their critics.

After the Obama administration announced its decision to stay away, European diplomats worked to soften the document. Rumors have swirled in Jewish community circles in recent days that the Obama administration would do an about-face and attend the conference.

The State Department statement released late Monday night suggested, however, that there was a way to go before the United States would reconsider its decision. Significantly, it repeated a demand that first gained currency in Jewish groups: the draft document must not even implicitly endorse the first Durban conference through any generic approbation of its outcome.

"The U.S. believes any viable text for the Review Conference must be shortened and not reaffirm ‘in toto’ the flawed 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA)," it said. "In addition, while references to ‘defamation of religion’ have been removed from the current draft text, we cannot support restrictions on
freedom of expression that could result from some of the document’s language related to "incitement" to religious hatred — a concept that the United States believes should be narrow and clearly defined and made consistent with human rights obligations ensuring freedom of expression."

The statement commended other changes in the draft document.

"Substantial improvements have been made, including shortening the document, removing all language that singled out any one country or conflict, and removing language that embraced the concept of ‘defamation of religion’ and that demanded reparations for slavery," it said.

Further changes might bring about a shift in the U.S. position, the statement said.

"We hope that these remaining concerns will be addressed, so that the United States can re-engage the conference process with the hope of arriving at a Conference document that we can support," it said.

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