New Zealand has made a last minute decision to boycott a
controversial United Nations conference on racism.
The move comes amidst growing concern it is being hijacked by Arab states looking to attack Israel.
But critics say the decision to pull out is cowardly.
It was supposed to be a coming together of nations to fight racism. Instead has descended into political bickering, culminating in a mass boycott.
"We were very surprised and shocked by these withdrawals," says Rupert Colville, UN spokesman.
New Zealand is among those pulling out of the conference, following the lead of Israel, the United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
"It's not a decision we've made lightly," says John Key, Prime Minister.
Green Party, Human Rights spokesman Keith Locke says it is a little cowardly to run away from the vigourous debate that will take place at the meeting.
"We should stand and argue our ground."
But there's concern the conference will turn into an anti-Semitic forum, led by a key speaker, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's previously denied the Holocaust happened and said this just before arriving in Geneva:
"Today the Zionist Party and the Zionist ideology is the standard-bearer of racism in the world."
There's also concern at a move by Arab states to define incitement to religious hatred as a form of racism, after angry reaction to controversial Danish cartoons criticising the prophet Muhammad.
Western nations fear that would curtail free speech.
But many countries, including France and Britain, are still attending the conference.
Opposition MPs in New Zealand say we should too.
"That's the reality of multi-lateral conferences is that things get said you don't agree with. But you need to be there at the table to make sure your voice is heard," says Grant Robertson, Labour's Associate Foreign Affairs spokesman.
Locke. says it's a real slap in the face for the United Nations and the nations in it, just as New Zealand has got Helen Clark in a top UN job.
Critics claim the government is simply blindly following its traditional allies.
"I think (Foreign Affairs Minister) Murray McCully needs to be very careful we don't start moving away from an independent principled stand on foreign affairs to simply follow the lead of other countries," says Robertson.
But Key says the decision not to attend the conference was principled and one he is happy to stand by.
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