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UN seeks to salvage anti-racism conference

The United Nations is trying to salvage an anti-racism conference a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered a mass walkout among European delegates.

Empty seat with a sign for the German delegation

Many countries have been boycotting the meeting

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is worried that President Ahmadinejad's speech could derail the five-day conference in Geneva.

"I noted that what was said in the president's speech has had nothing to do with the substance of the conference, and so it should also have nothing to do with the results," Pillay told reporters in Geneva.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay

Pillay wants to get the conference back on track

Pillay urged delegates to the Durban Review Conference against racism to focus on an agreement to take steps to fight racism, and not be put off by "one person who has come with these unsavory remarks".

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

Rights groups have echoed that call, as more European governments pulled their delegations.

"Ahmadinejad's speech contradicted the spirit and purpose of the conference, which is to defeat the scourge of racism," said Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Juliette de Rivero. "The best response to Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric is to stay in Geneva and rebut it."

Angry response

A number of countries are now boycotting the meeting due to the controversial address, in which the Iranian leader criticized Israel at length and called its government "racist."

The Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said in a foreign ministry statement:

"We cannot allow, through our presence, the legitimization of absolutely unacceptable anti-Israeli attacks. The Czech delegation will not return to the conference at all, as a consequence of Ahmadinejad's speech."

It joined the Italian, Dutch and Polish delegations in a mass walkout from the conference out of protest.

German government spokesperson Thomas Steg said Berlin would also stay away from the rest of the conference, but didn't rule out joining a final statement if the rest of the event ran well. He stressed that Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier made the "difficult" decision, well aware that Germany had never boycotted a UN forum before.

Other countries including Australia, Canada, Israel and the US stayed away in advance over fears that the Iranian leader, the only head of state to attend the conference, would use the gathering as a platform to attack Israel.

Their concerns were based on the last such conference against racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, when Israeli and US delegates stormed off over a discussion in which Zionism was equated with racism.

Ahmadinejad's words

Although Ahmadinejad's speech triggered outrage among many Western countries, a number of delegations, mainly from Arab or Muslim countries, applauded his address, welcoming his claim that the creation of Israel had led to a "totally racist government in occupied Palestine"

"Following World War II they resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering," Ahmadinejad told the audience, speaking through a translator.

"And they sent migrants from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in occupied Palestine," he said. "And in fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine."

Several Iranian newspapers hailed the speech in their coverage on Tuesday.

A demonstrator dressed as a clown protests Ahmadinejad's speech inside the venue

The speech was repeatedly interrupted by protests

"Cry for justice in the heart of Europe: Ahmadinejad angered Western racists," read the headline in the Iranian government newspaper.

Leading hardline daily Kayhan wrote: "Welcoming Ahmadinejad and hating racist Israel" in Geneva.

The reformist press, which has been critical of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and foreign policy, focused on the walkout and demonstrations in Geneva, but without criticising the president.

Among Europe's press, there was mixed reaction to Monday's events.

The centre-right Danish paper Jyllands-Posten said the controversy at the UN's racism conference illustrated that the world order had changed, and not to Europe's benefit, especially on issues such as human rights.

The Polish conservative daily Rzeczpospolita welcomed its government's decision to boycott the anti-racism conference, commenting that it had become a venue for Muslim countries and others to attack America and its closest allies while ignoring abuses taking place at home.

In contrast, France's Le Monde criticised countries that abandoned the conference, saying they had given their opponents a free hand, adding that liberal democracies should stand together and energetically defend their values at such a forum.

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