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Obama defends decision to boycott Durban II

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From the JTA news wire:

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.

Here’s the full exchange from the Q & A:

Q I’ll take that one. Mr. President, as you’re concluding your summit here and the meeting in Mexico, there is a U.S. — a U.N. conference, the world conference on racism in Geneva tomorrow. The U.S. is boycotting. And what say you about that? And is Zionism a main issue in the reason why the U.S. is boycotting the racism conference?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me, first of all, say that I believe in the United Nations. I believe in the possibility of the United Nations serving as an effective forum to deal with a whole host of transnational conflicts.

And so I want to be as encouraging as I can, and I’ve said that to the General Secretary.

For that reason, we’re actually — have pursued a seat on the Human Rights Commission, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, because even though up until this point we haven’t been very pleased with how it’s operated, we think that it’s worthwhile for us to go in there and try to make it into a constructive organization because of the extraordinary range of human rights violations that exist around the world. And I think America should be a leader; we can’t opt out of those discussions.

Now, in that same spirit, I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe — which, by the way, are not a particular province of any one country. Obviously we’ve had our own experiences with racial discrimination, but if you come down to Central and South America and the Caribbean, they have all kinds of stories to tell about racial discrimination.

Somebody mentioned earlier President Morales. Whatever I think about his politics, the fact that he is the first indigenous — person of indigenous background to be elected in a country that has a enormous indigenous population indicates how much work remains to be done around the world.

So we would love to engage constructively in a discussion like that. Here’s the problem: You had a previous conference — I believe it was in 2001, maybe it was 2002 — I think it was 2001 — in which it became a session through which folks expressed antagonism towards Israel in ways that were oftentimes completely hypocritical and counterproductive. And we expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you incorporated — if you adopted all the language from 2001, that’s just not something we could sign up for.

So if we have a clean start, a fresh start, we’re happy to go. If you’re incorporating a previous conference that we weren’t involved with that raised a whole set of objectionable provisions, then we couldn’t participate or it wouldn’t be worth it for us to participate because we couldn’t get past that particular issue.

And unfortunately, even though I think other countries made great efforts to accommodate some of our concerns and assured us that this conference would be more constructive, our participation would have involved putting our imprimatur on something that we just don’t believe.

So what we’ve said — and I said this to Secretary General Moon who was here addressing the summit — we’re happy to work with them to see if we can move forward on some of these issues. Hopefully some concrete steps come out of the conference that we can partner with other countries on to actually reduce discrimination around the globe. But this wasn’t an opportunity to do it.

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