UN anti-racism meet founders amid Western boycott
Geneva — A UN conference on racism was undermined by a growing boycott by Western nations on Sunday amid concern that the meeting will serve as a platform against Israel, which called the event a "tragic farce".
The outlook for the conference, which starts Monday in Geneva, was also thrown into doubt by the prospect of an opening day speech by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Australia and the Netherlands joined the United States, Canada and Israel in deciding to stay away from the five-day Durban Review Conference.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said she was "shocked and deeply disappointed" by Washington’s decision.
"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 to a pernicious and life-damaging degree on a daily basis all across the world," she said in a statement.
The meeting is meant to take stock of progress in fighting racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance since the controversial World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, eight years ago.
"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 in a statement.
Major European Union member states were still discussing whether to attend, a spokesman for Germany’s foreign ministry said.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an international Jewish human rights group, called on Germany to pull out, saying it "carries on its back a huge responsibility."
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxima Average broke ranks with the EU on Sunday, announcing that the Netherlands would stay away because it feared the event would be abused "for political ends and attacks on the West."
Britain said it still intended to send a low-level delegation, although it was "watching how things develop", a Foreign Office spokesman in London said.
Calling the UN event a "tragic farce," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yossi Levy said: "Officially it is aimed at denouncing racism, but it has invited a Holocaust denier who has called for the destruction of Israel,"
Ahmadinejad, the most prominent of the few heads of state going to Geneva, has called the Holocaust — when Nazi Germany killed six million European Jews — a "myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map".
Monday is also Holocaust commemoration day, which will be marked by ceremony in Geneva attended by leading Jewish figures including Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel, as well as the birth anniversary of Adolf Hitler.
On Friday, negotiators, including Western and Muslim states, believed they had ironed out the most controversial issues relating to religious discrimination and the Middle East in the draft conference declaration.
But those efforts proved insufficient, leading to an even bigger walkout than the one by the United States and Israel in Durban in 2001 over a proposal to equate Zionism with racism.
US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the latest draft still reaffirmed unacceptable parts of the 2001 declaration referring to the Mideast conflict and infringed on freedom of speech.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based human rights group, accused countries staying away from Geneva of "turning their backs on the victims of racism" and of "gravely endangering the UN’s work against racism".
Others challenged Ahmadinejad to eliminate severe discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, women, and halt incitement to hatred in Iran that they said had "flourished under his tenure".
"By coming to the Durban Review Conference, President Ahmadinejad signals a commitment to the conference’s goals of eliminating all forms of discrimination and intolerance," said the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), the Baha’i International Community, and the Iranian League for Human Rights.