April 20th, 2009
09:37 PM ET

Anti-Racism Conference – Says who?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/europe/04/20/racism.conference/art.eu.walkout.gi.jpg caption="European Union delegates leave during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech Monday."]

Octavia Nasr
CNN Senior Middle East Affairs Editor
AC360° Contributor

Today was supposed to be all about eradicating racism… or at least dealing with the problem… or just talking about it. The conference opened in Geneva, Switzerland, but not with everyone attending. The US, Israel and Canada boycotted the gathering out of concern that Israel was “singled out.” Furthermore, Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland for consultations in protest over allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to meet with his Swiss counterpart. If things weren’t difficult enough, Mr. Ahmadinejad was scheduled as the first (perhaps only) speaker at the conference. With his known anti-stance on Israel, there was widespread concern that the speech will turn into a ranting session against the Jewish state.

The UN named this year’s conference on anti-racism, Durban II, in reference to the first conference which was held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. So much has happened in the last 8 years and the world is more polarize and societies divided, that a Durban II was an anticipated event among nations and non-governmental organizations alike.

On Sunday, the world received the first signs of trouble when the US, Israel and a score of other countries announced their boycott of the conference. Then France reportedly agreed to attend after warning President Ahmadinejad that its delegation would walk out if he attacks Israel and calls it racist in his speech. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also warned the Iranian president not to promote “divisiveness."

Even before President Ahamdinejad started his speech, Jewish French students wearing colorful clown wigs stood up and yelled, “Racist, racist.” Ahmadinejad’s response was to the audience, “Please forgive them. They are misinformed.” In an interview with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the students said they wanted to show that the conference is a “circus.” The newspaper reported that the students, all members of the Jewish student union (UESJ) were able to enter the hall pretending to be representatives of NGO’s.

A few minutes into the speech, the expected rant began and Ahmadinejad blamed the racism that exists in the region on “the establishment of the racist state in 1948.” A clear reference to Israel which was established in 1948 as a Jewish homeland following the Holocaust. That’s when another group of students who had sneaked into the gallery stood up and yelled interrupting Ahmadinejad for several seconds before being removed from the gallery by security.

After this short pause, Ahmadinejad accused the west of making "an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering ... in order to establish a totally racist government in occupied Palestine." Many delegates cheered his words as dozens of mostly European diplomats collected their belongings and filed out of the room. Ahmadinejad however was not going anywhere. He directed his rant this time at the US and other western nations. It is all the more regrettable he said “that a number of Western governments and the United States have committed themselves to defend those racist perpetrators of genocide," in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Regional media reported the events each from their perspective. Iran’s Press TV had a caption that reads, “Ahmadinejad calls Israel a totally racist government.” The TV station’s web headline described Ahmadinejad’s actions as a “snub” of the French threats.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz offered two editorials, one summarized by its title, “Durban II / A self-righteous anti-Zionist jamboree,” supportive to Israel’s boycott of the conference.

The other offering the opposing view that Israel should have attended to make its point. This one is titled, “Durban II / Israel's boycott gives its critics the upper hand .”

In the London-based pro-Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi an editorial argued that Israel won without participation and Arab countries lost even with their attendance citing the concessions and “sacrifices” they had to agree to and having no one to talk to at the end since the major players boycotted or walked out.

As for Arab networks, Al-Jazeera gave Ahmadinejad’s speech and press conference full coverage describing it as “poignant” and “powerful,” while the Saudi-owned network Al-Arabiya described what followed the speech as “embarrassing.” The network highlighted the “tensions” and “controversies” Ahmadinejad’s speech created in Geneva.

So, the anticipated day came; but its mission was lost in boycotts, accusations, walkouts and condemnations. But wait.. This was only day 1. There is no telling what Day 2 will look like.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Global 360° • Octavia Nasr
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