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Obama defends Durban boycott

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama said the U.S. would have been "putting an imprimatur on something we just don’t believe" if it had participated in the Durban II conference.

A statement Saturday by the State Department said it was too late to address critical problems with the anti-racism forum and its decision not to attend was final. The statement commended conference organizers for additional improvements to a draft outcome document that removed explicit criticisms of Israel, but said the document remained unacceptable because it endorsed the 2001 Durban Conference, which singled out Israel for criticism.

The new document’s inclusion of the endorsement, which does not specify Israel or the Palestinians, “has the same effect as inserting that original text into the current document and re-adopting it.”

Answering a question at a news conference in Trinidad & Tobago about the U.S. decision to boycott the Durban Review Conference, scheduled to start Monday in Geneva, Obama noted that the initial 2001 Durban conference, which was supposed to be about racism, instead "became a session through which folks expressed antagonism towards Israel in ways that were oftentimes completely hypocritical and counterproductive."

"We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all the langugage from 2001 that’s not something we could sign up for," Obama said. "If you’re incorporating a previous conference we weren’t involved with that raised a whole set of objectionable provisions, it wouldn’t be worth it to participate because we couldn’t get past that previous issue."

He added if that if there had been a "clean start, fresh start," the United States would have been "happy to go."

Obama said he did believe in the United Nations and its ability to be an "effective forum" to deal with transnational conflicts," noting that the U.S. is pursuing a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time. He also said he told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he would be happy to work with the organization after the Durban conference "to see if we can move forward on some of these steps" and "partner with other countries to reduce discrimination."

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded the decision by the United States not to attend.

“President Obama’s decision not to send U.S. representation to the event is the right thing to do and underscores America’s unstinting commitment to combating intolerance and racism in all its forms and in all settings,” AIPAC said in a statement.

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