Chaos Mars U.N. Conference On Racism The U.S. and eight other nations are boycotting a U.N. conference on racism, concerned that it will become a forum for bashing Israel. It happened Monday, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the conference. But should the U.S. have taken part and entered the debate directly?
NPR logo Chaos Mars U.N. Conference On Racism

Chaos Mars U.N. Conference On Racism

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz at the anti-racism conference in Geneva. Ahmadinejad's speech caused a walk-out of Western diplomats. Anja Niedringhaus/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Anja Niedringhaus/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz at the anti-racism conference in Geneva. Ahmadinejad's speech caused a walk-out of Western diplomats.

Anja Niedringhaus/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered a walkout Monday at a U.N. anti-racism conference in Geneva, when he accused Israel of being a "most cruel and repressive racist regime."

Ahmadinejad accused the West of using the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians. His remarks prompted about 40 delegates from Britain, France and other European Union countries to walk out. Protesters also interrupted Ahmadinejad's remarks, tossing red clown noses at him and holding signs denouncing the proceedings as a circus.

The anti-Israel tirade and ensuing chaos was what the U.S. and eight other nations had been expecting, and a major reason why they chose to boycott the conference.

The controversy also raised questions about U.S. participation in such forums. Would it have been better for the Obama administration to be there and debate Iran directly? Or, would such an approach merely lend legitimacy to Ahmadinejad's views?

Some scholars say the U.S. should engage with other nations on a more equal footing. Others say forums like the Geneva conference have a built-in potential for abuse by nations seeking to distract attention from their own human-rights records.

Israel Protests

Israel has furiously protested the conference, known as Durban II, concerned that it would become a repetition of its predecessor, an anti-racism conference held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. That conference turned into a platform for a number of Islamic states to criticize Israel's policies dealing with the Palestinians.

Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Sallai Meridor, issued a statement saying, "Israel regrets that the conference, which instead of addressing its primary goals as the global fight against racism and xenophobia, has once again become hostage to one-sided, non-constructive politicization and biased rhetoric."

Last weekend, President Obama said the declaration that the U.N. was drawing up for the conference contained "a whole set of objectionable provisions" and that the U.S. would not attend.

Other nations boycotting the conference were Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland.

Britain and France sent ambassadors, but instructed them to walk out if speakers turned to Israel-bashing rhetoric. After Ahmadinejad's speech, leaders of both nations condemned his language.

A Chance To Make Mischief?

"The U.S. decision not to go [to Geneva] was validated very quickly by Ahmadinejad's performance," says Stewart Patrick, director of the program on international institutions at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The problems at the conference, says Patrick, "really point to the shortcomings of the universal bodies within the U.N." The conference, like the U.N. General Assembly, is open to any U.N. member country, and every country gets one vote.

"There are inherent limitations to universal organizations," Patrick says. "They provide multiple avenues for mischief by states that want to undermine U.N. values."

Patrick says that such organizations provide a forum for blocs of countries to coalesce around issues such as Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. "Whatever one thinks of the sometimes heavy-handed way the Gaza War was fought," he says, "surely this isn't the only human rights violation worthy of investigation."

That comment was echoed by Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington. "We are against this kind of conference degenerating into a platform for attacks against Israel and failing to look at racist and discriminatory acts by Sudan, Iran, Libya and other countries."

Better To Be Engaged?

John Quigley, a professor of international law at Ohio State University, says it would have been better for the United States to remain engaged in the Durban process.

"I think the U.S. criticism of the 2001 conference was overblown. ... There was a lot of criticism of Israel for its general policies, but it couldn't fairly be criticized as anti-Semitic," Quigley said.

Quigley also says the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, went to some lengths to negotiate compromise language in the Durban II declaration, in an effort to make it acceptable to the U.S. and other nations, language the Obama administration ultimately rejected.

"The major stumbling bloc for the U.S was the draft document's refusal to denounce the whole Durban I process," says Jules Lobel, a professor of international law at the University of Pittsburgh.

Even so, Lobel says it was a mistake for the U.S. to refuse to take part in the conference.

"The trick in diplomacy in the U.N. is to work out a solution that most states will accept. You can't take the position that you'll only work in forums where you have a majority or veto power," Lobel says.