A major UN anti-racism conference already wounded by the boycott of nine Western countries, opened Monday with the buzz of anticipation for a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the only head of state who accepted an invitation to attend.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a "myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," assailed the West for supporting the creation of the Jewish state after the atrocities of World War II.
"Under the pretext of Jewish suffering, they have helped bring to power the most oppressive, racist regime in Palestine," he said, to loud applause from Iranian activists in the gallery and pockets of headscarved Muslim women on the floor. "They have always been silent about their crimes."
With that, the 23 European Union countries who had not yet boycotted the conference abandoned their seats and streamed out of the hall, which was met by a smattering of more applause.
It had been hoped that this year's UN Racism Conference would avoid the fate of its 2001 predecessor, which was nearly derailed by vituperative debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is intended to be a global forum for addressing racial intolerance and sharing how to combat it. But the Middle East conflict again threatens to dominate the agenda.
Ahmadinejad's attendance, along with his meetings with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz and the UN Secretary-General came at a particularly sensitive time for Israelis.
"It is unfortunate that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon deemed it appropriate to meet with the greatest Holocaust denier of our time, the head of a UN member state who calls for the destruction of another UN member state. This matter is especially severe, as it took place on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day," according to a statement by the Israeli foreign ministry.
Given seven minutes, Ahmadinejad takes half an hour
Ahmadinejad's half-hour speech – well over the seven minutes he'd been allotted – went on to blame the United States for suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan and exacerbating discrimination through the current economic crisis. Then, he returned to Israel, the "racist perpetrators of genocide." He called for the world to "put an end to abuses by the Zionists" and the "conspiracies by some powers and Zionist circles."
"Ahmadinejad continues to invert law, morality, and history," says former Canadian justice minister, Irwin Cotler, who is also a vocal defender of Israel. "The best response was that of the community of democracies
– those who decided early on not to come to begin with, as my country, Canada; and those who decided to walk out when Ahmadinejad began - yet again - his incitement to hatred and abuse of the UN podium and Charter." [Editor's note: This quote replaces one attributed to an anonymous source, a practice which the Monitor strives to avoid when possible.]
In Iran, human rights at 'new lows'
UN officials were already on edge about the conference. The 2001 event, held in the South African city of Durban, was overshadowed by a related forum that branded Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism, as "racist" – likening the Jewish state to apartheid-era South Africa.
"We certainly don't want a repeat of what happened eight years ago," one UN official said on Sunday.
Yet just as in Durban eight years ago, the event offered a platform to a polarizing figure from the developing world: In 2001, Cuba's Fidel Castro was greeted by thousands of Cuban flag-waving activists.
This time it was Ahmadinejad, under whose leadership human-rights protections have "deteriorated to new lows," according to Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group that monitors human rights worldwide.
Specifically, the country is criticized for its treatment of minorities like the Baha'i, homosexuals, Jews, and others. Most recently, its conviction of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi on espionage charges after a closed-door trial has drawn criticism.
Ban Ki Moon sits through speech, then condemns it
In a sign of concern at the highest level, Mr. Ban released a statement after he met briefly with Ahmadinejad on the sideline of the conference, before his speech.
The UN chief "stressed the need to look to the future of unity, not to the past of divisiveness," read the statement. "In this regard, the Secretary-General reminded the President that the UN General Assembly had adopted the resolution to revoke the equation of Zionism with racism."
After Ahmadinejad's incendiary speech, Ban – who remained seated behind the Iranian leader during the entire speech – issued a swift condemnation.
"I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite," he stated. "We must all turn away from such a message in both form and substance."