GENEVA (AFP) – As delegates reconvene at the UN anti-racism meeting Tuesday, top UN officials sought to contain the fallout after an anti-Israel onslaught by Iran’s president prompted a mass walkout.
“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,” Navi Pillay, who is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva.
Pillay said delegates should not allow the five-day Durban Review Conference against racism to be “sabotaged” by “one person who has come with these unsavory remarks”.
She described President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “somebody who traditionally makes obnoxious statements”.
“Whether I consider that he sabotaged the conference. I don’t think so, unless we let him do that.
“So here I would appeal that you focus on … all the important work that has been done for this conference.”
While deploring Ahmadinejad’s speech and accusing him of undermining the aim of the conference, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also sought to turn public attention back to the key aims of the meeting.
Ban pointed out that member states had “come a long way” in forging an agreement on a draft declaration on fighting racism, xenophobia and intolerance that is expected to be adopted by the remaining states in the meeting.
“This is not the end of the process, this is just the beginning of the process. We have to continue and to build on this,” Ban told journalists.
But Ban had told Ahmadinejad in a one on one meeting before the Iranian leader spoke that the UN General Assembly had adopted resolutions “to revoke the equation of Zionism with racism and to reaffirm the historical facts of the Holocaust”.
“It is deeply regrettable that my plea to look to the future of unity was not heeded by the Iranian president,” Ban said.
Ahmadinejad, who has previously called for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map, criticised the creation of a “totally racist government in occupied Palestine” in 1948, calling it “the most cruel and repressive racist regime.
“The (UN) Security Council helped stabilise this occupation regime and supported it for the past 60 years, giving them a free hand to continue their crimes,” he said on the first day of the conference.
His remarks prompted 23 European Union delegations to walk out of the conference room in protest.
They also provoked a flurry of condemnation from Western leaders, with Washington calling on Iran to end its “hateful rhetoric”.
President Barack Obama “disagrees vehemently” with Ahmadinejad, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Gibbs added that it vindicated the decision by the country’s first African-American president to shun the conference.
Australia, Canada, Israel, some EU countries and the United States had announced they would not take part in the meeting even before it opened Monday.
Most EU members who walked out of the meeting during Ahmadinejad’s speech will attend the rest of the talks, the Czech EU presidency said Tuesday.
“The European Union rejects in strongest terms views expressed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad labelling Israel as (a) racist regime,” the presidency said in a statement after Monday’s speech.
The remaining participating EU nations “have no outstanding difficulty of substance with the draft Outcome Document and are ready to give … consent to it during the adoption on Friday,” the statement continued.
“However, we expect the conference to be held in a spirit of mutual respect and dignity,” it ended.
After Ahmadinejad’s speech, the Czech Republic said it was definitely dropping out.
The walkout mirrored the last such conference against racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 when Israeli and US delegates stormed off over comments by delegates equating Zionism with racism.
The Geneva meeting is meant to take stock of progress in fighting racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance since Durban. Pillay underlined recently that the goals set then had not been achieved.