updated 2/27/2009 7:01:21 PM ET 2009-02-28T00:01:21

The United States won't participate in a U.N. conference on racism in April unless the final document is changed to drop all references to Israel and criticism of religion, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

The conference is a follow-up to the contentious 2001 conference in the South African city of Durban, which was dominated by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery. The U.S. and Israel walked out midway through that eight-day meeting over a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism — the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state — to racism.

Israel and Canada have already announced that they will boycott the upcoming World Conference Against Racism in Geneva from April 20-25, known as Durban II, but President Barack Obama's administration decided to assess the negotiations before making a decision on U.S. participation.

Last week, the State Department sent two U.S. representatives to Geneva, where the final document to be issued by conference participants at the end of the conference is being negotiated, the U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because an official announcement has not yet been made.

The representatives — Betty King, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, and Felice Gaer, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — held 30 meetings with representatives of different countries and attended the negotiations, the U.S. official said.

Drawing the line
While the U.S. presence was warmly welcomed, the U.S. official said that in the negotiations, a bad document got worse.

The United States has decided that it will not participate in further negotiations on the outcome document and will not participate in the conference itself on the basis of the latest text, the U.S. official said.

The Obama administration would reconsider its position if the document improves in a number of areas including dropping references to any specific country, references to defamation of religion which the U.S. views as a free speech issue, and language on reparations for slavery. It also wants a shorter text and does not want the final document for Durban II to reaffirm the final document from the 2001 Durban conference, the U.S. official said.

Further details on the issues in question were not available as the latest version of the final document being negotiated in Geneva has not been released.

European nations have expressed hope that the conference can go ahead with a final text that is acceptable. But they have also drawn lines they say may not be crossed.

French diplomat Daniel Vosgien said in December that his country was firmly opposed to the idea of banning criticism of religion. Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said at the time that the Netherlands would walk out unless anti-Israel statements were scrapped.

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