NZ won't attend racism conference

Labour and the Greens are at odds with the Government over its decision to boycott this week's United Nations conference on racism.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully confirmed today New Zealand would not take part, joining other countries including the United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Israel and Germany.

The Geneva conference is in trouble because of intense sensitivity around Israel and Arab states – the last UN meeting called to condemn racism ended in chaos when Muslim delegates tried to insert language into a declaration defining Zionism as racist.

The US walked out of that conference in 2001 and won't attend this one despite a draft declaration which doesn't mention Israel, the Middle East or any other divisive issues.

Mr McCully said New Zealand would not attend because he was not satisfied the wording of the draft declaration would prevent the conference from "descending into the same kind of rancorous and unproductive debate that took place in 2001".

"I was determined that New Zealand's participation in the review conference would be on the basis of a draft outcome document that did not endorse the 2001 declaration, and which responsibly and productively addressed racism."

Prime Minister John Key shared the concerns.

"We believe it would restrict the freedom of expression, the second thing was that we believe that the conference would create a platform for attacks on Israel, and we believe we are in good company."

Labour's associate foreign affairs spokesman, Grant Robertson, said it was unfortunate the Government had allowed "rhetoric around Israel" to override important issues about racism.

"In multilateral discussions there will be things said that we find unpalatable, but it is vital that we are at the table to ensure that New Zealand's opposition to racism in any form is expressed at the highest levels," he said.

"Mr McCully needs to be careful that New Zealand continues to adopt an independent and principled approach to foreign affairs."

The Green Party's foreign affairs spokesman, Keith Locke, said the Government's decision was "an unacceptable insult" to the UN at a time when former prime minister Helen Clark was taking up an important position at the world body.

"The fact that we won't agree with all the speeches at the conference is hardly a reason to withdraw," he said.

"Our boycott is letting down the victims of racism around the world and putting us at odds with most other nations."

Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres is attending.

"I am extremely disappointed that New Zealand and Australia and the United States and a number of other countries have pulled out because it makes it so difficult to have the very important dialogue that needs to take place," he told Radio New Zealand.

The draft text had no hint of anti-Semitism in it.

"I can't for the life of me see why it wouldn't form a good basis for determining an outcome during this week."

He said there would be different views raised during the conference but said efforts were made to prevent the conference being used as a platform for hate speech.

Mr McCully said combating racism was an important cause and one to which New Zealand attached the highest importance.

"However, the review conference in Geneva is not likely to advance the cause of race relations at the international level, and so New Zealand, like many other countries, will not be represented at it," he said.

Miss Clark has been appointed head of the UN Development Programme and has left for New York.