Delegates Walk out of UN Racism Conference

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The Irish Times

Delegates Walk out of UN Racism Conference

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The empty seats of nations who boycotted the UN review conference on racism. UN chief Ban Ki-Moon has opened a five-day UN review conference on racism, saying he was "profoundly disappointed" at the boycotts by some Western countries while all forms of racism persist. (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Delegates attending the United Nations conference on racism have walked out as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke on the Middle East and racism in Europe.

The delegates left the conference during Mr Ahmadinejad's speech after he called Israel a racist government.

Mr Ahmadinejad's comments drew applause from some delegations that remained.

Earlier today United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon defended a contentious text which caused several countries to withdraw from a global racism conference.

Mr Ban Ki-Moon made his comments in an attempt to salvage the UN summit on racism that the United States and its major allies are boycotting over concerns about its draft declaration.

Australia, Canada, Germany, Poland, Italy and the Netherlands have withdrawn from the summit because of fears it will be a platform for what US president Barack Obama called "hypocritical and counterproductive" antagonism towards Israel.

Defending the disputed text as "carefully balanced", Mr Ban Ki-Moon said the Geneva meeting was needed to address simmering tensions that could otherwise trigger social unrest and violence.

"I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside. I hope they will not do so for long," he said in remarks prepared for the opening session."

The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights expressed her disappointment at the withdrawal by the US and several of its allies from the conference. "I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States' decision not to attend," said Navi Pillay, who is hosting the conference.

She conceded some countries were focusing solely on one or two issues to the detriment of the fight against intolerance, but said it is essential that the issue of racism be tackled globally.

Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland today for "consultations" in protest over the Swiss president's meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr Ahmadinejad has suggested the Holocaust never happened and has called repeatedly for Israel's destruction. He is scheduled to address the conference later today, coincidentally as Israel marks its annual Holocaust

The Iranian President arrived in Geneva yesterday and met privately with President Hans-Rudolf Merz of Switzerland, the country that represents the diplomatic interests of the United States in the Islamic republic.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI said the conference is needed to eliminate racial intolerance around the world. Asia News, a Catholic news agency that is part of the missionary arm of the Vatican, said of the pope's comment: "The Holy See is distancing itself from the criticisms of some Western countries."

The administration of President Barack Obama announced on Saturday that it would boycott "with regret" the weeklong meeting in Geneva, which already is experiencing much of the bickering and political infighting that marred the 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa.

"I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe," Mr Obama said in Trinidad yesterday after attending the Summit of the Americas.

But he said the language of the UN's draft declaration risked a reprise of Durban, during which "folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive."

"We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all of the language from 2001, that's not something we can sign up for," Mr Obama said. "Hopefully some concrete steps come out of the conference that we can partner with other countries on to actually reduce discrimination around the globe, but this wasn't an opportunity to do it."

Some European countries are still deciding whether to attend the UN conference, which runs through April 24th. Britain said it will send diplomats, despite concerns the meeting could become a forum for Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic attacks.

The major sticking points regarding the proposed final UN declaration are its implied criticism of Israel and an attempt by Muslim governments to ban all criticism of Islam, Sharia law, the prophet Muhammad and other tenets of their faith.

Germany's withdrawal is significant since it has played a leading role in UN anti-racism efforts as a result of its troubled historical legacy. In recent meetings, it has expressed dismay about some governments' attempts to downplay the significance of the Holocaust.

Germany it made its boycott decision after consulting with other European Union nations.

"This decision was not easy," said German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "As in Durban in 2001, this conference could be abused by others as a platform for their interests. We cannot accept that," he said.

New Zealand's foreign minister Murray McCully said today he was not satisfied the wording of the draft statement would prevent the conference from "descending into the same kind of rancorous and unproductive debate that took place in 2001."

Israel and Jewish groups have lobbied hard against Western participation in the meeting, arguing that the presence alone of American and European negotiators would give legitimacy to what they fear could become an anti-Semitic gathering.

Israel's Foreign Ministry thanked the boycotters yesterday and predicted the conference would "once again serve as a platform to denigrate Israel and single it out for criticism."

Still, after years of preparations there appears little evidence to validate these fears. The statement of 2001 that is so contentious now was cheered in Israel at the time, as it recognised the Jewish state's right to security.

Regarding its boycott, President Obama's administration said it could not endorse any statement that singled out Israel or included passages demanding a ban on language considered an "incitement" of religious hatred. Such calls "run counter to the US commitment to unfettered free speech," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

Many Muslim nations want curbs to free speech to prevent insults to Islam they claim have proliferated since September 11th. They cite the 2005 cartoons of Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper that sparked riots in the Muslim world.

European countries also have criticised the meeting for focusing heavily on the West and ignoring problems of racism and intolerance in the developing world.

Agencies

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