By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The return of the United States to U.N. talks on racism could prove pivotal to salvaging an international conference plagued by charges of Israel-bashing, human rights activists said on Tuesday.
The move reflects President Barack Obama’s determination to restore the United States to an active role in human rights diplomacy after George W. Bush’s more sceptical approach to the United Nations.
Israel and Canada have announced they are boycotting the April 20-24 conference in Geneva, a follow-up to an acrimonious meeting in 2001. Canada said the conference was likely to descend into anti-Semitism while Israel said it would be an "anti-Israel tribunal".
European Union (EU) countries including Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are under pressure from Jewish lobbies to follow suit. But they have stayed engaged while struggling to tone down a final U.N. text to be issued by the conference, diplomats say.
The Obama administration sent a high-level team to an informal session in Geneva this week but declared that a "change in direction" was required before it could commit to full participation in the April meeting.
"We are extremely happy that the United States is back in the process. We think the engagement of all countries is an essential component for the success of the conference," Philippe Dam of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told Reuters.
The current draft incorporates language presented by Islamic countries accusing Israel of violations against Palestinians, and also their stand against religious defamation which Western countries say would be a pretext to curb freedom of speech.
"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," Mark Storella, head of the U.S. delegation, told the talks on Monday.
Iit was important to try to work with other states "who want this process to achieve a successful review conference that focuses on combating racism and discrimination", he said.
The 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban was meant to lay down a blueprint for nations to address sensitive issues.
Israel and the United States walked out in protest over a draft text branding Israel as a racist and apartheid state, language that was later dropped.
The U.S. delegation this week included Betty King, a Caribbean-born former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, and Felice Gaer, a human rights expert who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The engagement of the United States, EU members and Australia is vital to ensuring the final document did not single out one country or refer to defamation of religion, Dam said. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Robert Woodward)