Diplomats seek to salvage controversial UN racism meet

22nd April 2009, Comments 0 comments

After Iran’s widely criticized speech Monday, diplomats sought to turn attention back to the key aims of the meeting.

Geneva -- UN officials and diplomats sought Tuesday to salvage a major anti-racism conference after an incendiary anti-Israel speech by Iran's president triggered a mass walkout on its first day.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was widely criticised after calling Israel a "racist" and "cruel" regime on Monday, prompting 23 European Union delegations to walk out in protest.

Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel joined the condemnation on Tuesday, saying that allowing Ahmadinejad to make such a speech at the conference was "an insult to our intelligence."

"Why this member is invited to the UN is beyond me,” the American writer said at an event on the sidelines of the conference. “Why he was allowed to say what he said, why wasn't he stopped by the chairman ... is beyond me."

Organisers and delegates sought to contain the fallout.

Most EU members who walked out of the meeting on Monday have decided to attend the rest of the five-day conference.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told radio station Europe 1 that the conference was "not at all a failure but the beginning of a success."

A European diplomat also said that Ahmadinejad's speech "certainly does not create a favourable climate but we should be able to overcome this."

China called for the international community to stop the bickering and focus on the conference's goals.

"We hope relevant parties can step up dialogue, eliminate disputes and concentrate on a consensus so as to combat racism with one voice," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

Ahmadinejad, who has previously called for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map, on Monday criticised the creation of a "totally racist government in occupied Palestine" in 1948, calling it "the most cruel and repressive racist regime."

Iranian newspapers praised the speech, with government newspaper Iran headlining the story "Cry for justice in the heart of Europe: Ahmadinejad angered Western racists."

UN officials appealed to delegations not to let the Iranian leader dominate the agenda of the conference.

"It is the responsibility of states to decide if they want to or will ensure that this conference treats real problems linked to racism and marginalise the comments of the Iranian president," Pierre Hazan, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, told AFP.

Pillay called on delegates not to allow Ahmadinejad to sabotage the conference.

"Whether I consider that he sabotaged the conference ... I don't think so, unless we let him do that," she told journalists Monday. "So here I would appeal that you focus on ... all the important work that has been done for this conference."

While deploring Ahmadinejad's speech and accusing him of undermining the aim of the conference, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sought to turn attention back to the key aims of the meeting.

Ban pointed out that member states had "come a long way" in forging an agreement on a draft declaration on fighting racism, xenophobia and intolerance that is expected to be adopted by the remaining states in the meeting.

"This is not the end of the process, this is just the beginning of the process,” Ban told journalists. “We have to continue and to build on this."

Iran's foreign ministry charged that the UN chief's criticism of Ahmadinejad was "not neutral."

"They displayed a one-sided and unreasonable approach," said foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi.

Australia, Canada, Israel, some EU countries and the United States had announced they would not take part in the meeting even before it opened Monday.

After Ahmadinejad's speech, the Czech Republic said it was definitely dropping out.

The walkout mirrored the last such conference against racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 when Israeli and US delegates stormed off over comments by delegates equating Zionism with racism.

The Geneva meeting is meant to take stock of progress in fighting racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance since Durban. Pillay underlined recently that the goals set then had not been achieved.


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