A speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad critical of Israel
has sparked a walkout by many Western delegates at a United Nations
conference on racism in Geneva, Switzerland.
A stream of representatives from several European states left the hall
in protest as the Iranian leader condemned the 1948 founding of Israel,
calling it the establishment of "a most cruel, repressive and racist
regime" under "the pretext of Jewish suffering."
U.N. and Western diplomats blasted the remarks as outrageous,
anti-Semitic and an incitement to hatred. U.N. Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon said (in a statement) he deplored the Iranian leaders use of the Geneva meeting "to accuse, divide and even incite."
Hecklers repeatedly interrupted the Iranian leader's remarks. Security
officers dragged several protesters wearing multi-colored clown wigs
out of the room. One of them, shouted "racist," and hurled a red clown
nose at Mr. Ahmadinejad, but missed him.
The French Union of Jewish Students took responsibility for that
protest, saying its members dressed as clowns "to symbolize the
masquerade they said the conference represents."
The Iranian president smiled at the interruptions but continued his
speech, which drew a smattering of applause at several points, mainly
from members of the Iranian delegation.
A spokesman for U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said "this speech
was completely inappropriate at a conference designed to nurture
diversity and tolerance."
In Washington, a State Department spokesman (Robert Wood) said the
address was "unacceptable" and fed "racial hatred." In New York, the
United States' deputy U.N. ambassador (Alejandro Wolff) called it "a vile and hateful speech."
In addition to his criticism of Israel, Mr. Ahmadinejad also condemned
the U.N. Security Council. He urged reforming the council to eliminate
the veto power wielded by its five permanent members (the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France). He called the veto "discriminatory."
Nine countries, including the United States and Israel, were already
boycotting the conference over fears that it would become a forum for
anti-Semitism. They also expressed concern about the meeting's call for
protection of religion, saying it could be used to threaten freedom of
After his remarks, Mr. Ahmadinejad told reporters he views the boycotters as arrogant and selfish.
Before the Iranian leader's speech, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
expressed his disappointment over the boycott by the United States and
some of its major allies.
Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland Monday after the Swiss
president met with Mr. Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the conference.
U.S. President Barack Obama said there was a danger that participants
at the meeting will express antagonism toward Israel in ways that are,
in his words, "completely hypocritical and counterproductive."
Other countries skipping the conference include the Netherlands, Poland, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy and New Zealand.
U.N. planners organized the forum to measure progress in fighting
racial discrimination and xenophobia since a controversial 2001 racism
conference in Durban, South Africa.
The United States and Israel walked out of those talks over an attempt by some participants to link Zionism with racism.