Monday, April 20, 2009

Speech Prompts Walkout at Racism Conference

A stream of delegates from France and other European nations walked out of a United Nations conference here on Monday in protest during a speech by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who criticized the formation of a “racist government” in the Middle East in a clear reference to Israel.

Sharpening the dispute over the Iranian presence, Israel also temporarily recalled its ambassador to Switzerland for “consultations” on Monday to protest the conference and a meeting held Sunday between the Swiss president, Hans-Rudolf Merz, and Mr. Ahmadinejad.

As Mr. Ahmadinejad took the podium here, two protesters, wearing colored wigs and shouting “Racist!” attempted to disrupt the beginning of his speech but were quickly hauled out by security officers, and he continued speaking.

Mr. Ahmadinejad began his remarks by saying the formation of the state of Israel left “an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering” in order to “establish a totally racist government in occupied Palestine.”

By creating the state of Israel in the wake of the Second World War, he continued, Europe and the United States “helped bring to power the most cruel, repressive and racist regime in Palestine.”

Amid a wave of applause from the galleries, delegates from the 23 European Union nations present stood up and filed out of the hall.

The conference, the first United Nations conference in eight years to address the issue of racism, was already being boycotted by Israel, the United States and several important allies.

The delegates reentered the meeting hall after Mr. Ahmadinejad finished his 30-minute address to continue working on the conference’s stated goal: a statement that condemns racism worldwide and identifies it as something that all governments should address.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, strongly condemned Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks, calling them the “opposite of what this conference seeks to achieve.”

“I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite,” Mr. Ban said in a statement. “We must all turn away from such a message in both form and subtance.”

Mr. Ban added that he regretted that Mr. Ahmadinejad had ignored his request, made at an earlier meeting, to use the conference to help galvanize the international community to fight racism.

Earlier, Israeli leaders reacted with deep dismay to news that Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust a myth and advocated the destruction of the Jewish state, would speak at the conference.

In remarks at a cabinet meeting on Monday, on the eve of Yom Hashoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Six million of our brethren were massacred during the Holocaust. Sadly, not everyone learned the lesson.”

“While we gather to honor their memory, in Switzerland there will assemble a conference allegedly aimed against racism,” he said. “Its guest of honor is a racist Holocaust-denier who does not hide his intentions to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.”

Referring to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s role at the conference, Mr. Peres said Monday: “There must be a limit, even to the neutrality of Switzerland. Today is the day? This is the man to speak? This is the outlook for the future?”

The walkout was a flashback to the initial world summit meeting against racism in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, which critics said served as a platform to bash Israel. The United States and Israel pulled out of that conference, and this year, objected to a paragraph in the draft declaration that reaffirmed the findings of the Durbin meeting. That section, along with a reference to incitement that Washington said might infringe on free speech, prompted the United States to announce its boycott with “regret” over the weekend.

Canada and Israel had already said they would not attend, and others who joined the boycott included the Netherlands, Italy and Australia.

The boycott decision was greeted with elation by American organizations supporting Israel, which had been protesting for months, but dismayed some rights organizations and African-American groups who accused the administration of skipping a historic opportunity to right past wrongs.

Mr. Obama said Sunday that he “would love” to participate in a conference that addressed racism and discrimination, but not one with the baggage of the previous gathering.

“Unfortunately, even though I think other countries made great efforts to accommodate some of our concerns and assured us that this conference would be more constructive, our participation would have involved putting our imprimatur on something that we just don’t believe,” Mr. Obama said.

While other governments who pulled out echoed Mr. Obama’s remarks, saying that the conference was being misused by some countries to single out Israel, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said the boycotting countries had allowed Middle East politics to intrude into a conference on discrimination.

“I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States’ decision not to attend,” Ms. Pillay said in a statement. “A handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance.”

Human rights groups said countries that boycott the conference were losing the chance to set the record straight on racism. “These governments are ceding the floor to more radical voices,” said Juliette de Rivero, the Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Nick Cumming-Bruce reported from Geneva, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Neil MacFarquhar and Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York.

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