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U.S. Groups Criticize Western Nations for Boycotting U.N. Racism Conference

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the Durban Review Conference on racism at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva. (Reuters Photo)

Iranian's president as expected used a U.N. conference on racism to lash out at the U.S. and Israel -- at one point calling the Holocaust a "pretext" for aggression -- but that didn't stop some groups, including the Congressional Black Caucus, from criticizing the U.S. for boycotting the meeting. 

Human Rights Watch and the U.S. African Chamber of Commerce were among the other groups that said the United States and other nations that opted not to attend made the wrong move. They said they regard the summit as a legitimate avenue for addressing racism globally. 

"This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple," the CBC said in a written statement. 

But the opening of the conference in Geneva Monday was marked by the kind of anti-Israel rhetoric the United States feared would overshadow the conference and that was a key reason cited in boycotting the affair. 

Protesters stormed the stage and a group of Western delegates walked out of the conference when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the stage to decry Israel as "racist" and blame the Western world for the financial crisis. 

Ahmadinejad, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, said the U.N. Security Council enabled the "occupancy regime" of Israel and "gave it free hand for its crimes." He added that "world Zionism personifies racism." 

Afterward U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon rebuked the Iranian leader, saying he used his speech "to accuse, divide and even incite" -- the exact opposite aim of the meeting. 

The U.S. also left the Durban I conference in 2001 after Israel was singled out as a human rights violator.

Human Rights Watch suggested that those boycotting the conference only helped destabilize it. 

"The sad truth is that countries professing to want to avoid a reprise of the contentious 2001 racism conference are now the ones triggering the collapse of a global consensus on the fight against racism," Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement. 

She accused those countries of putting the "concerns of victims last," capitulating to "radical voices" rather than isolating them and playing "into the hands of those who want the conference to fail." 

Human Rights Watch has been critical of Israel for its recent military campaign in the Gaza Strip. The organization has been critical of Hamas-led violence. Rivero, though, said the draft declaration for the U.N. conference addresses the concerns of Western governments by upholding freedom of speech and avoiding singling out Israel. The U.S. said it was boycotting the conference because the draft document included the 2001 declaration, which contained the language on Israel.

Ahmadinejad's speech offered some of the starkest criticism of the Jewish nation. Among the diplomats seen leaving the room as he spoke were envoys from Britain, France and Canada, who had all previously threatened to stand up and leave if the Iranian president made anti-Semitic statements, the Times of London reported. 

The Netherlands and Germany on Sunday joined the list of countries boycotting the meeting -- that list included Australia, Israel, Italy and the United States. 

One protester, dressed in a rainbow clown wig, was ushered out by security after shouting "racist" in French at Ahmadinejad.

"We did it because it's all a farce," Joelle Jakubowicz, a member of the Union of Jewish Students in France, told the U.K. Guardian. "You can't fight racism if you are racist yourself."

But Martin Mohammed, president of the U.S. African Chamber of Commerce, told FOXNews.com that the United States -- and other free nations -- should have attended, particularly given their large and diverse minority populations. 

"I don't know why the U.S. is not participating," he said. 

He said "legitimate concern" exists about anti-Israel rhetoric, but there is also "legitimate concern from Muslims" about criticism of Islam.  

Mohammed said he's open to constructive criticism of Islam but that "you don't want to go below the belt." He cited the 2005 Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that led to riots in Muslim countries. 

The Congressional Black Caucus on Monday also posted a weekend statement on its Web site opposing the boycott. 

"This decision is inconsistent with the administration's policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with, expressed by President Obama during the G20 and on other recent occasions," the statement said, adding that the United States was poised to play a "leadership role" in fighting racism. 

"This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple," the statement said. "Instead, the administration opted to boycott the conference, a decision that does not advance the cause of combating racism and intolerance, but rather sets the cause back."