Monday’s opening of the UN Conference on Racism met low expectations, fueling criticism that it was simply a rerun of the notorious Durban Conference in 2001.

  Any hopes of rising above 2001’s Durban conference and arriving at a strong global position against racism were quickly dashed by boycotts, Ahmadinejad’s expected shots at Israel and the nearly forty walkouts that accompanied his speech.  Hecklers and a demonstrator in a clown’s wig turned out to be the least serious of issues plaguing the meeting.

Durban 2.0

Trouble began earlier with a U.S. call to boycott the conference due to language in this year’s draft outcome that ‘reaffirms’ the 2001 declaration.  Although negotiations this year have resulted in a draft that does not single out any nations, the Durban text mentions only Israel by name.  And, according to the BBC, the U.S. sees the reaffirmation of the 2001 declaration as the next worse thing to including such language this year.

The U.S. boycott call received plenty of takers.  The London Times:

Australia, New Zealand and Canada declined some weeks ago to attend the so-called Durban II in Geneva, with Italy and the Netherlands joining them. Now Germany and Poland have followed them in staying away after up to the wire negotiations by Britain and France for Europe to attend on a united front.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed profound disappointment at the boycott.  Duetsche Welle quoted Ban at the opening of the meeting: “I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside. I hope they will not do so for long.”  Ban’s disappointment is not surprising.  The BBC’s Imogen Foulkes agrees that, “The walkout is a public relations disaster for the United Nations, which had hoped the conference would be a shining example of what the UN is supposed to do best – uniting to combat injustice in the world.”

However, the walkout is hardly unexpected; Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has admitted that the 2001 meeting was “tainted by the antisemitic behaviour of some NGOs on the sidelines.”  The UK had even hoped for a common European position on the conference, but this did not emerge.

European Reactions

Italy, via the BBC’s Mark Mardell:

Franco Frattini, who was until last year the European commissioner for security and justice, told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that the failure to agree a common approach was “a very serious mistake, because it shows our inability, despite all the words uttered in this connection, to come up with at least a lowest common denominator on a basic problem: namely the struggle against discrimination, on behalf of which we in Brussels so often speak out.”

Germany, via Deutsche Welle:

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Berlin’s decision was made based on concerns that the event would be “misused as a platform for ulterior interests.”

The vice president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, welcomed Steinmeier’s decision in an interview published by the online portal of Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper.

“The whole event is a propaganda show for fanatical haters of Israel,” Graumann said, adding that European Union member states’ failure to present a united front in boycotting the conference was a “disgrace.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu strongly criticized the conference also.  RFE/RL:

“Six million of our people were murdered in the Holocaust. Not everyone has learned the lesson, unfortunately,” Netanyahu said. “While we commemorate their memory, a conference purporting to be against racism convenes in Switzerland. The guest of honor is a racist, a Holocaust-denier, who makes no secret of his intention of wiping Israel off the face of the earth. I commend those nations that boycotted this hate summit.”

Ahmadinejad’s Speech

Although France, the UK and the Czech Republic did attend the conference, they did not remain their seats for long during Ahmadinejad’s speech.  They walked out with about 40 other delegates within minutes of the Iranian president’s first words.  The BBC related some of Ahmadinejad’s remarks:

Mr Ahmadinejad, the only major leader to attend the conference, said Jewish migrants from Europe and the United States had been sent to the Middle East after World War II “in order to establish a racist government in the occupied Palestine.”

He continued, through an interpreter: “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.”

The report continues with the British and French vocal reactions:

French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste Mattei said: “As soon as he started to address the question of the Jewish people and Israel, we had no reason to stay in the room,” Associated Press reported.

British ambassador Peter Gooderham, also among those who left, said “such inflammatory rhetoric has no place whatsoever in a United Nations conference addressing the whole issue of racism and how to address it.”

A Missed Opportunity

Ahmadinejad’s comments will certainly add to the recent roller-coaster ride in U.S.-Iran relations.  As the Manchester Guardian notes, “Ahmadinejad’s speech and press conference will be carefully scrutinised for his tone towards the US after Barack Obama’s recent overtures to Tehran.”  However, U.S. objections to the conference do not stop at an anti-Semitic character; there are also worries about various religious clauses.  The Financial Times:

The US said on Sunday that it was “with regret” withdrawing from the conference. President Barack Obama, who had been under pressure from African-American groups to send a delegation, said the language of the draft declaration risked a reprise of a 2002 anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa at which ”folks expressed antagonism toward Israel in ways that were often times completely hypocritical and counterproductive.”


Apart from the issue of Israel, the US and the Netherlands expressed concern that the document also sought to curb “incitement” against individuals on religious grounds. Although the text specifies all world religions, critics say the clause is being pressed by those who wanted to silence criticism of Islam.

Opinion remains divided on how best to address the conflict surrounding the UN Conference.  However, a unified EU response would have been useful in addressing some of the controversial text and speeches.  Once again, an opportunity for a beneficial global conference on racism has resulted instead in a circus.

Valerie Nichols is a web editor at the Atlantic Council.