Delegates walk out of UN summit


Delegates attending the United Nations conference on racism have walked out after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel had occupied Palestinian land on "the pretext of Jewish suffering".

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

"Following World War II they resorted to military aggressions to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering," Mr Ahmadinejad told the conference, speaking through a translator.

"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," he said.

"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."

British ambassador Peter Gooderham condemned the Iranian leader's "offensive and inflammatory comments" that prompted the temporary walk-out. Delegates said they would return after he had finished speaking.

"Such outrageous anti-Semitic remarks should have no place in a UN anti-racism forum," he said.

Slovenian ambassador Andrej Logar called the Iranian comments - which prompted applause among delegations that remained in the UN assembly hall - "detrimental to the dignity of this conference."

"The word Zionism personifies racism that falsely resorts to religion and abuses religious sentiments to hide their hatred and ugly faces," Mr Ahmadinejad told the conference.

The United States is among eight Western powers who are boycotting the week-long conference because of fears it will be used as a platform for unfair criticism of Israel.

"We strongly deplore the language used by the president of Iran. In our view this speech was completely inappropriate at a conference designed to nurture diversity and tolerance," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store told the conference after Ahmadinejad had finished speaking that his words amounted to incitement to hatred, and through his words Iran had made itself the odd man out at the meeting by undermining the agreement so far on the conference declaration.

"Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective efforts of the many," he said.

Earlier today United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon defended the 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.

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.