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Racism talks expose deep divisions
Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher says conference to show unity against racism backfires.
Last Modified: 21 Apr 2009 04:55 GMT

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate, left, demonstrated against Ahmadinejad's speech [AFP]

Dozens of delegates have walked out of a speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, at a United Nations anti-racism conference in Geneva after he described Israel as a "racist government".

Al Jazeera's correspondent at the summit argues that the event, staged to show the UN was united in the fight against racism and injustice, has merely exposed deep divisions.

The conference had began with a show and a no-show - a dance performance to greet the delegates, and empty seats for the nations which had decided to boycott the summit. 

They were angry at what they saw as the conference's early anti-Israeli tone and the invite to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, as the summit's controversial keynote speaker. 

Reaction

 Ahmadinejad speech criticised

Defining racism

In his opening address, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nation's secretary-general, was quick to note the absences.

Ban said: "Some nations, who by right, should be helping to forge a path to a better future, are not here.

"Outside these halls, interest groups of many political and ideological stripes, shout against one another in acrimony. They too should be with us, talking together."

Lunches left

Many had left their lunches early to get a good seat for Ahmadinejad's speech, setting aside their chicken and rice or the unrecognisable vegetarian option.

They filed slowly past security, showed their accreditation badges and made their way into the hall to hear the afternoon's main speaker. 
 
Ahmadinejad had upset people before he even arrived, with Iran's state broadcaster quoting the president as saying "the Zionist ideology and regime are the flag bearers of racism".

His invitation and the agenda of the conference had provoked boycotts and no shows from several countries, including the United States, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
 
Australia, among others, said it would not participate because it felt Ahmadinejad should not be given a UN platform for his views.

People in multi-coloured clown wigs attempted to disrupt Ahmadinejad's speech [Reuters]
As the president took the stage, the protests got louder and closer, as people in multi-coloured clown wigs rushed forward to try to disrupt the event before being led away by security.

When he finally spoke, Ahmadinejad took familiar lines of attack, the unfairness of the UN Security Council, the power of  Washington.

But when he turned to the topic of Israel, never mentioned by name, he sparked the diplomatic protest by mainly European countries.

The president blamed the colonial powers for two world wars, and for the establishment of what he described as "a totally racist government in Palestine in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe".

Many stayed

That was enough for some. Britain and France, and some others, had stepped away from the boycott but warned if Ahmadinejad verbally attacked Israel, they'd walk out. And they did. 

Suddenly, delegates from at least 30 countries created a long line of protesters snaking towards the main doors as they left the scene in anger.

Yet, for all those that left, there were many that stayed, and many that applauded. To them, this was worth hearing.

In a bullish news conference immediately afterwards, the president criticised those who had walked out, claiming what they had done was take a stand, not against him, but against the goals of the conference.

The timing of the remarks couldn't have been more raw for Israel. 

At sundown on Monday, the country marks Holocaust remembrance day, one of the most sombre dates in its calendar. 

And many in Israel see the threat from Iran in the same terms as the threat from Hitler's Germany.

Divisions exposed
 
The roots of this row lie in the original conference on racism held in Durban in South Africa eight years ago. 

Day one has been a difficult day for the United Nations [AFP]
Israel and the US walked out then, angry that some at the conference had described Zionism as a racist ideology.
 
As in Durban, day one in Geneva had been a difficult day for the UN. 

This conference was meant to promote tolerance in the fight against racism.  Yet intolerance has been a major problem. 

A proposal backed by Muslim countries for a defamation of religion clause was dismissed as an attack on free speech, and yet some of those very countries making those criticisms didn't want the president to make his address.

The UN wanted this to be a conference which showed it was united in the fight against racism and injustice. 

But on its opening day, all it has done is expose the deep divisions among those present.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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