Powell skipping U.N. racism conference
By Elise Labott
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will not attend a U.N. conference on racism because of language critical of Israel, the State Department said Monday.
"It's clear to us now that the secretary will not go to this conference," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, noting that the "exact nature and level of our representation, if any, is still being considered."
The announcement came after weeks of negotiations by U.S. officials to remove language from conference documents that equates Zionism -- the movement that promotes a Jewish state in Israel -- with racism and singles out Israel as a "racist" occupying power.
Some of the language was removed, but the Bush administration was not satisfied.
Boucher said sending a high-level delegation to he conference, held in Durban, South Africa, would associate the United States with positions it considered "offensive."
He said Powell spoke by phone with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan twice over the weekend and again on Monday about the conference.
"The level tends to imply a certain association that we may not, certainly don't want with this kind of language," Boucher said. "We spent years working to eradicate some of these ideas from the U.N. system, and we don't think this is a time or the place to put them back in."
The U.N. General Assembly, which had labeled Israeli policies of Zionism as "racist" in 1975, dropped the charge after the 1991 Madrid peace talks.
The Bush administration also objected to support for reparations for slavery as part of the conference agenda, but U.S. officials said that issue had been finessed.
Powell's decision not to attend the conference, which starts Friday in Durban, follows an announcement in Geneva by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson that conference participants agreed to remove language that directly equates Zionism with racism.
Boucher said the administration objected to Israel being singled out.
"There was a whole series of references to one particular government, to one particular country, and to its polices as being racist," Boucher said. "That's what we object to, that's what the president objected to on Friday."
On Friday, President Bush warned the United States would boycott the conference completely if the participants "picked on" Israel.
Boucher said the administration would have to see how the situation "might evolve or change" before it decided whether to participate.
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