EU split on boycott of UN racism conference

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 20 2009 09:38 AM | Updated as of Apr 20 2009 05:38 PM

GENEVA – EU states were split Sunday on whether to follow a US boycott of a controversial UN conference on racism in Geneva, where Iran's president is expected to launch a verbal onslaught on Israel.

Germany became the latest country to announce it would not be attending the five-day Durban Review Conference, joining Australia, Canada, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.

But it did hold out the possibility of joining the event later in the week.

France, on the other hand, will attend, said a source close to President Nicolas Sarkozy's office.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Geneva Sunday, one of the few heads of state attending.

Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and questioned the Holocaust as a "myth", is to address the gathering at around 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) Monday.

Earlier Sunday Ahmadinejad -- who is seeking re-election in June -- was quoted by Iran's state broadcaster as saying "the Zionist ideology and regime are the flag bearers of racism".

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yossi Levy denounced the event as a "tragic farce".

The Geneva meeting is meant to take stock of progress in fighting racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance since the controversial World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, eight years ago.

But Levy said: "Officially it is aimed at denouncing racism, but it has invited a Holocaust denier who has called for the destruction of Israel."

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said they could not be sure the conference would be used "as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views".

US President Barack Obama said anti-Israeli language that was "oftentimes completely hypocritical and counterproductive" in the draft final communique had been the red line for his administration.

European Union governments were divided over whether or not to attend.

Belgium called for countries to attend after the Netherlands vowed to stay away because it feared the event would be abused "for political ends and attacks on the West".

Britain, while expressing reservations, said it still intended to attend.

And a source close to Sarkozy's office told AFP late Sunday: "France will go to Geneva... in order to articulate its standpoint on human rights issues."

Junior Minister for Human Rights Rama Yade warned that France would "not tolerate any verbal slander".

"Our position must be backed up by a verbal political offensive. So that people understand that this confrerence is not only a diplomatic victory but the continuation of a fierce battle for the victims of racism and discriminations. This message must be absolutely clear."

But Italy confirmed its withdrawal Sunday.

The Paris-based European Jewish Congress kept up the pressure, calling on all 27 EU states to boycott the event. Ahmadinejad's presence meant the United Nations had "put the fox in charge of the hen house," said EJC president Moshe Kantor.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, an international Jewish human rights group, specifically called on Germany to pull out.

And later Sunday, Germany announced that it would be staying away -- at least at first.

Their concern was that the conference would be "hijacked for other interests, as was the case with the previous one in 2001", said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a statement.

Germany would be "a very attentive observer" when the conference got underway, said Steinmeier, and he did not rule out their "returning to active participation a little later".

Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz met Ahmadinejad in Geneva late Sunday, his office said and raised the issue of jailed US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi.

Switzerland has been representing US consular interests in Iran since Tehran and Washington broke off diplomatic relations in 1980.

Saberi was sentenced by an Iranian revolutionary court to eight years in jail on charges of spying for the United States during a closed-door trial, in a verdict unveiled Saturday.

The meeting took place despite Israel's attempts to talk Merz out of it.

Monday, as well as being the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth, also marks the start of Holocaust commemoration events, including a ceremony in Geneva attended by leading Jewish figures including Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said she was "shocked and deeply disappointed" by Washington's decision to stay away.

Campaigners Human Rights Watch said the boycotting states were "turning their backs" on victims of racism.