Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama moved toward reversing the Bush administration’s boycott of the United Nations Conference Against Racism by joining talks this week on the proposed outcome declaration.

Obama sent a delegation to negotiations that began today in Geneva, and the U.S. will consider attending the April 20-24 conference, according to the State Department. The U.S. didn’t attend two preparatory meetings last year, after walking out of the first UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, eight years ago to protest criticism of Israel.

“We are here to explore with you whether it is possible to move beyond our differences and focus the Durban Review Conference on the racism and xenophobia that seriously persist today in our world,” Mark Storella, head of the U.S. delegation, said in a statement to the opening of the Geneva meeting, according to a transcript provided by the UN.

The decision to attend the Geneva meeting represents a shift in U.S. positions on UN matters. The Obama administration previously lifted the ban on sending U.S. government funds to a UN agency that provides family planning counseling, expressed support for the International Criminal Court and is considering membership in the UN Human Rights Council.

The Bush administration refused to join the ICC or the Human Rights Council. The U.S. said the treaty that created the ICC doesn’t contain adequate provisions to protect its soldiers from politically motivated prosecutions. The decision not to stand for membership in the Human Rights Council stemmed from the body’s inclusion of Cuba, China and other countries accused of abuses.

‘Hateful Language’

U.S. and Israeli delegations abandoned the 2001 UN conference on racism, saying they objected to language criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell ordered U.S. participants to leave because the conference planned to use “hateful language” about Israel.

Storella made it clear in his statement that the U.S. isn’t satisfied by the work so far on the declaration to be adopted after the April conference.

“You are all aware of the strong reservations the United States has about this document as it singles out Israel for criticism, places unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression, under the guise of ‘defaming religion,’ and calls for payment of reparations for slavery,” Storella said.

“Nevertheless, we believe it is important to try to make a positive contribution and to work with member states of the United Nations who, like us, want this process to achieve a successful review conference.”

Conference Participation

Participation in the planning meeting doesn’t mean the U.S. will take part in future sessions or in the conference itself, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said today in Washington.

Rights groups including Washington-based Human Rights First pushed the U.S. to attend the Geneva meeting, saying in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the decision would be an “early indicator of the new administration’s desire to engage with the UN.” The U.S. should “lead an international effort to put the conference back on track,” the letter said.

Juliette de Rivero of New York-based Human Rights Watch called the U.S. participation a “good first sign of engagement with the Human Rights Council” and a step toward helping rights groups “fight some of the negative issues from surfacing through the negotiations.”

Israel and Canada have decided not to attend the conference in April, the UN said.
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