GENEVA – The U.N. rights chief on Monday rejected fears that an upcoming U.N. conference on racism might be hijacked by critics of Israel and urged countries to make the meeting a success by focusing on global issues.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the April 20-25 conference has been disparaged in the media and attacked by a lobbying campaign of those who fear a repetition of the anti-Israel moves that marred the first racism conference in 2001.
"This is unwarranted," Pillay told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
She urged all countries to put aside "narrow, parochial interests and reflexive partisanship" and work for an agreement that would help eradicate discrimination.
"Failure to do so may reverberate negatively on the full spectrum of human rights work and mechanisms for years to come," Pillay said.
She did not name any countries specifically. But the Obama administration said Friday the U.S. will boycott this year's conference unless its final document is changed to drop all references to Israel and the defamation of religion. U.S. officials are also pressing European nations to boycott the conference unless there are revisions to that statement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni praised the U.S. for its decision and said it was a "cynical conference whose sole purpose is blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment disguised as a battle against racism."
The meeting in Geneva is designed to review progress in fighting racism since the global body's first such conference eight years ago in Durban, South Africa. That 2001 meeting was dominated by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery, and particularly marred by attacks on Israel and anti-Israel demonstrations at a parallel conference of non-governmental organizations.
The U.S. and Israel walked out midway through the 2001 conference over a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism — the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state — to racism. The European Union also refused to accept demands by Arab states to criticize Israel for its "racist practices."
In the end, the 2001 conference urged governments to take concrete steps to fight discrimination and recognized the plight of the Palestinian people, which Pillay said showed it rose above "divisive and intolerant approaches."
Informal negotiations of a draft conclusion for this year's conference have proven difficult, with many of the 2001 issues — such as criticism of Israel — re-emerging.
Islamic countries, still angry over cartoons and films attacking Muslims, have been campaigning for wording that would equate criticism of a religious faith with a violation of human rights.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Durban II should address contemporary forms of racism, such as religious profiling and Islamophobia. Countries should not put conditions for the participation in the meeting, he told reporters.