Iran's Remarks Upset U.N. Racism Conference

The Obama administration boycotts a U.N. conference on racism over concerns about its fairness. And about 40 European diplomats walked out when Iran's president accused the West of using the Holocaust as a pretext for aggression against Palestinians.

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The Obama administration has made a point of trying to re-engage with the United Nations, but it's keeping its distance from a U.N. conference on racism. President Obama decided to boycott over concern that the meeting could provide a platform for anti-Semitism. Western nations that did send officials today ended up walking out anyway when Iran's president took the podium and started to complain about Israel.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A protester dressed in a clown wig had to be dragged out of the conference in Geneva today when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got up to speak.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

KELEMEN: And that was just the beginning of many interruptions of his address to the U.N. conference on racism. Western delegates simply walked out when Ahmadinejad, speaking through an interpreter, accused the West of using the holocaust as a pretext for aggression against Palestinians.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator) And they sent migrants from Europe, the United States and from other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) And, in fact…

KELEMEN: Observers cheered when the delegates filed out the door in protest. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who met Ahmadinejad in Geneva before the showdown, said he was disappointed that the Iranian leader used his speech to, quote, "accuse, divide, and even incite."

Here in Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said we've heard this all before.

Mr. ROBERT WOOD (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): The comments that he made frankly were unacceptable and frankly feed racial hatred. Iran needs to end this type of inflammatory rhetoric.

KELEMEN: In some ways, Ahmadinejad's presence made it easier for the Obama administration to avoid the conference entirely. Wood says the main reason was that the draft conference document, which no longer had all the anti-Israel rhetoric that it once did, still had some objectionable parts that could limit free speech, and it endorsed the last such meeting in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, a conference that the U.S. boycotted.

Mr. WOOD: We tried to, you know, work with a number of countries to get a document that would allow us to attend, but in the end, that wasn't possible.

KELEMEN: A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton says it took time for reality to set in for this administration.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations): And I think President Obama's decision really sets an important precedent in American foreign policy, that we now have bipartisan support for the concept of boycotting objectionable United Nations events. It's not just a conservative or a Republican thing now. It's a liberal and Democratic thing too.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has tried to show that it's dealing with the U.N. in a far different way than Ambassador Bolton and the Bush administration did, by holding out the possibility until the weekend that they might attend if the final document was improved. And it did get better, though Bolton argues that text that goes from awful to just bad isn't much of an improvement.

Mr. BOLTON: They were trying to have it both ways, you know? They wanted to say to the left-wing human rights groups, we really do want to go to this thing, but at the same time to the pro-Israel community, they wanted to give them a sob(ph) as well. So I think the compromise, frankly, in a very political decision, is you don't go to the Durban 2 conference but you do announce you're going to seek election to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

KELEMEN: The current U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, recently told Politico that the U.S. would seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council to try to work from within and battle, as she put it, all the anti-Israel crap. Bolton doesn't see the point because if the U.S. goes for a seat, it would simply replace Canada, a country that has stood up for human rights but hasn't had an impact. Canada was one of the first countries to announce that it was boycotting the U.N. racism conference.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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