Dozens of western delegates participating in the UN racism conference in Geneva walked out of the forum as an act of protest during the keynote speech delivered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The conference had already been badly undermined by a boycott by the United States and some of its major allies over concerns that it would be used as a platform for attacks against
The delegates rose in unison as the Iranian president began attacking Israel as a racist nation. Ahmadinejad accused Israel of being the "most cruel and racist regime." In a rambling speech, Ahmadinejad pointed the finger at the United States, Europe and Israel and said they were destabilizing the entire world. The boycott left the Iranian president as the only head of state in attendance, and his speech produced the kind of language that the Western countries and Israel had feared.
Ahmadinejad, who has in the past cast doubt on the Holocaust, accused Israel of occupying Palestinian territories "on the pretext of Jewish suffering".
British ambassador Peter Gooderham, whose country chose not to send a minister to Geneva, explained the walkout: "Such outrageous anti-Semitic remarks should have no place in a UN Anti-racism forum."
French ambassador Jean-Baptiste Mattei said: "It is a pity that Mr. Ahmadinejad is trying to take this conference hostage. We are ready for serious discussion but this is beyond
what should have been expected."
In all the delegates of 23 nations left the hall in protest – including Jordan and the European Union. UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon remained in his seat.
Ahmadinejad's address was first interrupted before it even began, as a French student wearing a colorful clown wig rose from his seat and began yelling at the Iranian president. He was removed from the scene by security personnel. The audience in the hall broke out in applause as he was taken out, and Ahmadinejad asked those present to forgive "these ignorant people."
As he began speaking about Israel, three Israeli students who managed to sneak into the hall after first being denied entry also interrupted the speech, calling Ahmadinejad "racist" as they too were apprehended by UN security.
Even before he spoke, Ahmadinejad became the flash point of a conference already strongly divided over Muslim countries' attempts to use it to denounce Israel and over their call for a global ban on criticizing Islam.
The United States announced Saturday it would boycott the weeklong meeting, which follows a 2001 conference in South Africa. Muslim condemnation of Israel at the earlier conference angered that country, and the United States, as well.
Organizers have sought to avoid the controversies that marred the earlier meeting but have encountered
many of the same issues. Besides the United States and Israel, seven other countries — Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland — are also declining to participate.
European Union spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann said that, while four EU nations had decided to boycott, others would push to ensure the document adopted by the conference was fair.
"It is essential that the current draft text ... does not have any language on defamation of religion, of anti-Semitic nature or targeting specific countries or religions of the world," Hohmann said.