Most of those nations boycotted because the conference's final statement (PDF here), which was intensively pre-negotiated and was finally agreed upon last week, reaffirmed its support for the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA), that was issued by the precursor conference held in 2001, in Durban, South Africa. Most of the boycotting nations objected in particular to the 2001 document's specific mention of "the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation" and to "the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State" (Clause 63).
This week's conference gained a lot of media attention primarily because of the fiery speech made by Iran's Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the opening day, April 20. In it, he described the establishment of Israel in the following terms:
Following World War II, [a number of powerful countries] resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of Jewish sufferings. And they sent migrants from Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine... And in fact in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe… they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive, racist regime in Palestine.He also strongly criticized Israel's recent actions in Gaza and the US military's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But at the point where he described Israel as "a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine" many or most of the European delegations present in the hall walked out-- whereas some members of other delegations applauded his words.
I think it was at that point that conference organizers decided to bring the conference to a speedy conclusion, on Tuesday, instead of letting it run through Friday as earlier planned.
UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-moon criticized Ahmadinejad's speech in strong terms. Later he issued a short statement expressing the hope that those nations that had boycotted the Geneva conference would "rejoin the international community soon in the fight against the scourges of racism and racial discrimination."
Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian-Israeli Member of the Israeli Knesset was quoted by Al-Jazeera as saying,
Prior to the Geneva gathering, international human rights lawyer Curtis Doebbler wrote in Al-Ahram Weekly that the pre-negotiated text of the statement had been considerably watered down, in concession to a number of western states including those that subsequently announced their decision to boycott. This raises intriguing questions about whether those states had actually been engaging in the pre-negotiations on the text in good faith.
What the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians is worse than what happened to black people in the time of apartheid. They are separating not just Palestinians from Jews, but Palestinian from Palestinian.
Yet no one can discuss what is going on because President Ahmadinejad dominated the agenda.
Regarding the US's decision to boycott, the terse April 18 statement in which the State Department announced this spelled out that the Obama administration's objection to the 2001 DDPA was that it "singles out one particular conflict [that is, the Palestine Question], and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians." This seems somewhat strange since today (unlike in 2001), the US administration is indeed strongly committed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, so it is hard to see exactly what the State Department's statement was referring to.
Anyway, it was sad that the Geneva conference ended up achieving a lot less than most of its organizers had hoped it could achieve. It ended up instead, being yet another scene for a tussle between the governments of a small number of rich, basically western nations and many other nations and peoples who still feel that the west has not paid nearly enough attention to their grievances.