UN seeks to turn page on Ahmadinejad

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The Independent Online

The United Nations sought today to rally nations against intolerance a day after the anti-Israel speech by Iran's president sparked protests and swelled the US-led list of countries boycotting the world racism conference.

Dozens of Western diplomats walked out during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech and a pair of rainbow-wigged protesters threw clown noses at Iran's hardline leader yesterday when he called Israel the "most cruel and repressive racist regime."

France, which later returned to the conference, said it was optimistic the UN would move on and approve a declaration by tonight committing the world to fight racism.

The meeting is "not at all a failure but the beginning of a success," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on French radio.

The global body was similarly hopeful.

"In the drama of yesterday everyone forgot what the conference is actually about," UN spokesman Rupert Colville said. "I think we're back on track now."

Conference organisers have sought desperately to avoid the same problems that marred the last global racism gathering eight years ago in Durban, South Africa. The US and Israel walked out midway into that event over an attempt by Muslim countries to liken Zionism — the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land — to racism.

Even though any final document will have no enforcement power, and will likely do little in the short-term to improve the situation of minorities around the world, it arouses great passion from all governments.

Israel is not mentioned anywhere in the agreement prepared for the current meeting, which seeks to avoid any offence but has angered many in the Muslim world for its failure to point the finger directly at the Jewish state for its treatment of Palestinians.

Iran has fought to minimise any reference to the Holocaust, while the Obama administration has said it cannot accept a reaffirmation of the UN's 2001 declaration, which in its final version noted the "plight of the Palestinians" and Israel's right to security.

While themes from African poverty to the suffering of South America's indigenous peoples was discussed today in Geneva, the US and eight other boycotting nations were joined on the sidelines by the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency.

China, which has prevented any criticism of how it treats Tibetans or members of the Falun Gong spiritual sect, called for dialogue and consensus to combat racism.

"New forms of racism keep cropping up so it is a very challenging job," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing. She called for "zero tolerance to racism at both the international and national levels."

But some delegates at the conference refused to look beyond the Middle East.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki called Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank the "ugliest face of racism."

The UN, meanwhile, expelled 375 delegates representing different advocacy groups at the conference.

They included representatives of a Jewish student group that interrupted Ahmadinejad's speech with protests and attempted to block his appearance at a news conference. Iranian delegates that disrupted proceedings with their cheering were also removed from the meeting.