, GENEVA, Apr 20 – UN chief Ban Ki-moon was due to open an anti-racism conference on Monday that was overshadowed by a Western walkout and fears that Iran’s president will launch another verbal onslaught on Israel.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and described the Holocaust as a "myth" — arrived in Geneva late Sunday as one of the few heads of state attending the conference.
Setting off for Switzerland, Ahmadinejad — who is seeking re-election in June — was quoted by Iran’s state broadcaster as saying "the Zionist ideology and regime are the flag bearers of racism".
Similar sentiments expressed by Arab and African countries eight years ago prompted a US and Israeli walkout during the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, and the five-day Geneva follow-up this week descended into what Israel called a "tragic farce" even before it started.
The Paris-based European Jewish Congress said in a statement that Ahmadinejad’s presence meant the United Nations had "put the fox in charge of the hen house".
The US government’s decision Saturday to join Canada and Israel in staying away from Geneva snowballed as Australia, New Zealand , Germany, Italy and the Netherlands followed.
"Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the review conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views," Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.
Japan said Monday that it would attend a UN conference on racism and regretted a US boycott of the event, which has been overshadowed by fears of a Western walkout and a verbal onsault on Israel.
"I regret that the United States cannot participate in the conference," Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told reporters. "Japan will send our delegation led by Ambassador to Geneva (Shinichi) Kitajima."
US President Barack Obama defended Washington’s stance, saying that despite progress in negotiations in recent weeks, anti-Israel language in a draft final communique was "oftentimes completely hypocritical and counterproductive".
"If we have a clean start, a fresh start, we’re happy to go" to a future meeting, he told reporters at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.
The European Union’s traditional show of unity on international human rights unravelled, as Britain, France and Ireland decided to attend.
The Geneva meeting is meant to take stock of progress in fighting racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance since the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism.
But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay , who was "shocked and deeply disappointed" by Washington’s decision, underlined recently that the international goals set in Durban had simply not been achieved.
"Eight years on, anti-racism pledges and measures have not yet succeeded in relegating discriminatory practices and intolerance to the heap of history’s repugnant debris," said Pillay.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch faulted boycotting states for "turning their backs" on victims of racism.
Monday, as well as being the anniversary of German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s birth 120 years ago, also marks the start of Holocaust commemoration events, including a ceremony in Geneva attended by Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel among leading Jewish figures.