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Controversy over Israel dogs UN racism conference - again

Several western nations joined the US and Israel in boycotting this week's anti-racism UN conference in Geneva over fears that it would be a repeat of the 2001 Durban summit that degenerated into an anti-Semitic forum.

Protesters at the UN world conference against racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001 holding up a sign saying No to Racism

UN conferences are supposed to combat racial discrimination

It's called the World Conference against Racism and its mandate is to provide a global UN forum for combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting minority rights.

In 1978, when the first UN conference was held in Geneva, the focus was South Africa's apartheid policy. In that case, international pressure played a key role in the demise of a system more than a decade later that segregated the country's inhabitants according to the color of their skin.

Since then, the UN's anti-racism conference has been held two more times - in Geneva in1983 and most recently in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. In Durban, the agenda was supposed to address grievances from oppressed minority groups, such as the Roma in Europe and the "untouchables" of India, but it was derailed when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage and led to political recriminations.

Anti-racist conference turned anti-Semitic

Both the US and Israeli delegations had stormed out midway through the conference over a draft resolution that equated Zionism with racism and singled out the Jewish state for committing genocide, apartheid and other war crimes.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, delivers his speech in front of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, right, during the Durban review Conference (Durban II) at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, April 20, 2009.

Iran's president calls Israel "the most cruel and racist regime"

The Durban meeting, however, was best remembered for provocations from non-governmental organizations. Pro-Palestinian advocates passed out leaflets depicting Adolf Hitler with the caption: "What if I had won? There would be no Israel and no Palestinian bloodshed."

At the week-long UN Durban Review Conference that kicked off on Monday in Geneva, the fallout from the 2001 clashes has again surfaced.

Iranian leader ignites old passions

The list of nations boycotting the conference kept growing longer. Poland joined the list of Western absentees on Monday, following on the heels of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden as well as the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel.

The British, French and other European Union delegates in attendance had walked out in a mass protest after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and threatened to "wipe Israel off the map," added more fuel to the fire in his keynote address.

In a Monday afternoon speech, Ahmadinejad said that the Palestinian people were "made homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering" when Israel was created in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, calling the Zionist state "the most cruel and racist regime."

Abmadinejad's remarks have only served to vindicate the countries that boycotted the UN conference in the first place. Even back in 1978 and 1983, Israel had been pilloried by its Muslim and Arab neighbors. Observers who attended the Durban meeting in 2001 told Deutsche Welle that they still haven't gotten over the impassioned anti-Semitic tone of the conference.

"I was so totally shocked. The whole atmosphere at the conference, which was about combating racism, wound up being one which promoted racism," said one NGO delegate.

Political conflicts have no place at anti-racism conference

A demonstrator dressed as a clown cries from the media tribune against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his speach during the opening of the Durban Review Conference (UN's Conference against Racism) at the European headquarters of the United Nations, UN, in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, April 20, 2009

Hecklers condemned Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic remarks

Rabbi Michael Melchior, who was then Israel's deputy foreign minister, said that Durban had turned into "a farce" that made any possibility of future dialogue impossible.

"To criticize policies of the government of Israel is legitimate, even vital. But there is a profound difference between criticizing a country and denying its right to exist. Anti-Zionism, the denial of Jews the basic right to a home, is nothing but anti-Semitism, pure and simple," said Melchior.

"The conflict between us and our Palestinian neighbors is not racial and has no place at this Conference. It is political and territorial. The outrageous and manic accusations we have heard here are attempts to turn a political issue into a racial one, with almost no hope of resolution," he continued.

Durban 2001 overshadowed by 9/11

The Durban conference was overshadowed only days later by the events of September 11, 2001. So the question of how a UN conference to combat racism could turn into a forum of anti-Semitic attacks was left unanswered.

Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who had been the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights back then said, "Durban must be a beginning [for dialogue] and should not be the end of it. We must have a follow-up conference."

But now the Iranian president's inflammatory rhetoric has threatened to further undermine any resolution in the absence of virtually all Western powers for the rest of the week.

Author: Diana Fong
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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