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Boycott blow for UN racism forum

Protesters carry a banner in Geneva
The racism conference is due to start on Monday at the UN's European HQ

A major UN conference on racism looks to be in disarray as more countries confirmed they will not take part.

Australia and the Netherlands joined the US, Israel, Italy and Canada in boycotting the talks. The UK is sending a delegation, but no senior official.

The move is over concerns about anti-Israel and anti-Western bias. Iran's president, who has denied the Holocaust, is to address the meeting.

The talks are meant to review progress in fighting racism since a 2001 forum.

That conference, in the South African city of Durban, ended in acrimony when Arab countries tried to define Zionism as racism.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said she was "shocked and deeply disappointed" by the boycotts.

"A handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance to a pernicious and life-damaging degree on a daily basis all across the world... ," AFP news agency quoted her as saying.

The Pope spoke out in favour of the conference, saying it was an opportunity to fight discrimination and intolerance.

"We ask for firm and consistent action, at national and international level, to prevent and eliminate any form of discrimination and of intolerance," he said.

Incitement

Less than a day before it is due to get under way, the five-day Durban Review Conference is being overshadowed by political wrangling between western and Muslim nations.

Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views
Australian government statement

The draft final declaration has been causing much heated debate.

It has been watered down, with all references to Israel and the Middle East removed.

However, at the request of Middle East nations, it still contains a clause about the incitement of religious hatred.

Many Western countries see this as a curtailment of free speech.

They are also uncomfortable with the presence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

He is the only major leader to accept an invitation to the forum, which he will address.

He has in the past described the Holocaust as a myth, and many UN member states do not feel they should be present if he does this again, says the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.

'Abused'

The US state department's confirmation of a boycott late on Saturday was followed by declarations from other western nations.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a welcoming ceremony in Tehran
Iran's president is due to address the conference on Monday

"Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the review conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views," said a statement from Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

The Netherlands declared on Sunday it would not be a party to any attempt for the conference "to be abused for political ends and attacks on the West," Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said.

A meeting of EU representatives has been called for Sunday evening to evaluate the group's stand on attending, Reuters news agency reported.

However the UK will send a delegation to the conference, but without a high-level official.

It has indicated its diplomats will leave the hall if President Ahmadinejad repeats his attacks on Israel, says our correspondent.

Human rights groups and UN diplomats are dismayed that what should be an important event has descended into politics, she adds.



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