GENEVA - Human rights groups said on Friday the United States and the European Union should take part in next week's U.N. conference on racism now that diplomats have removed the most contentious sections of the conference declaration.
Juliette de Rivero of New York-based Human Rights Watch said that delicate negotiations over the draft text had yielded a broad agreement to leave out references to Israel, the Middle East, religious defamation, and other issues in dispute.
While the document is still being finalized, she said there were no major obstacles left to keep the United States and European Union from joining the April 20-24 meeting, which Israel and Canada are boycotting because they expect it will be dominated by Muslim criticism of the Jewish state.
The decision has not been made yet but we really think they should join this consensus, de Rivero told reporters in Geneva, where the high-level conference will be held. This is a text that (they) can join and should join.
Antoine Madelin of the International Federation for Human Rights said the latest draft no longer singled out Israel for scrutiny, reassuring Israel's Western allies. We cannot today qualify the text as stigmatizing, he said.
The Durban II meeting is meant as a follow-up to the last U.N. conference on racism, xenophobia, and discrimination, held in South Africa in 2001.
The United States and Israel walked out of 2001 meeting after Arab states tried to have the conference define Zionism as racist, and when a civil society forum on its sidelines was overrun by hate speech.
Western diplomats said they would be prepared to leave next week's conference if an address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Monday includes unacceptable comments in line with his previous statements that Israel should be wiped off the map and questioning whether the Holocaust happened.
His track record does not leave us feeling very comfortable about what he might say, given what he's said in the past on the Holocaust, on Israel and on anti-semitism, one diplomat said.
We don't normally walk out of conferences run by the United Nations and we'd rather avoid doing it. But that doesn't mean that there aren't red lines that if breached would prompt us to take action.
Washington has mainly stayed away from the closed-door negotiations over a declaration for the Durban II meeting, which among other things will review the impact of the September 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent counterterrorist efforts on race and ethnic relations around the world.
The White House has said it would not send a delegation to the conference unless references to barring defamation of religion -- which Arab states have pushed following the 2006 controversy over Danish cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad -- were dropped to safeguard freedom of expression.
And the European Union, whose member states have been taking part in the negotiations on the text, said it would reserve judgment on participating until the declaration is ready.
There is no decision yet if Germany or the EU will participate, said a German government spokesman.
While it would be unfortunate to sit it out, we cannot tolerate it if this conference becomes a platform for accusations or one-sided comments on the Middle East conflict, he added.
A British source close to the Geneva conference said the current version of the document was pretty good. It's still up in the air, but at this stage we remain intending to attend the conference, he added.
Separately, a spokesman for the Foreign Office said that Britain was working hard for the conference to succeed, but wouldn't support anything that had a skewed focus or outcome.
Washington has not made an announcement about whether it will attend the meeting or not. Earlier this week U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the Obama administration would eye the final text before committing to a decision.