Boycotts overshadow start of racism conference


GENEVA: April 20, 2009. (AFP) Western nations boycotted a UN-organised racism conference on Monday over fears it would become a forum for anti-semitism as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepared to deliver a keynote address

United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon decried the Western boycotts as the list of absentees lengthened and other European nations threatened to walk out. The diplomatic fallout meanwhile spread as Israel recalled its ambassador in protest at the Swiss president's decision to meet Ahmadinejad -- the Iranian's first formal meeting with a Western head of state since taking office in 2005. "Some nations, who by rights should be helping to forge a path to a better future, are not here," Ban said as he opened the meeting in Geneva, telling delegates he was "profoundly disappointed." "I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside," he added before holding his own meeting with Ahmadinejad. Poland became the latest nation to boycott the meeting after the United States, Israel, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand. France decided to attend the event but warned that Europeans would walk out if Ahmadinejad made "anti-Semitic accusations" during the event. Ahmadinejad has caused outrage both within Israel and other Western nations over his previous comments that the Nazi Holocaust was a "myth" and the Jewish state should be "wiped off the map". Before his arrival in Geneva, he launched a new broadside against Israel, saying "the Zionist ideology and regime are the flag-bearers of racism." The European Jewish Congress said Ahmadinejad's presence meant the UN had "put the fox in charge of the hen house" while Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz's decision to meet him on Sunday led Israel to recall its envoy to Bern. "This is not a break in relations, but an expression of Israel's discontent for the lax Swiss attitude towards Iran," an Israeli foreign ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity. The US government's decision Saturday to join Canada and Israel in staying away from Geneva snowballed as others followed. "Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the review conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views," Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded countries that decided "to boycott this festival of hate." But the European Union's traditional show of unity on international human rights unravelled, as Britain, France and Ireland decided to attend. "If he utters racist or anti-Semitic accusations, we will leave the room immediately," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio. Similar sentiments expressed by Arab and African countries eight years ago prompted a US and Israeli walkout during the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. "We speak of finding a new unity, as the times demand. Yet we remain weak and divided and stuck in old ways," Ban said. In a statement released through his spokeswoman, Ban said that he would not tolerate any denying of the Holocaust. "He condemns Holocaust denial and those who minimise the importance of the Holocaust," Ban's spokeswoman said. The Geneva meeting is meant to take stock of progress in fighting racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance since Durban. But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights underlined recently that the goals set then had not been achieved. Monday is the 120th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth and also marks the start of Holocaust commemoration events, including a ceremony in Geneva attended by leading Jewish figures.

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