Fault lines split UN racism summit

President Ahmadinejad of Iran caused his expected splash at a UN conference on racism already deeply divided over Israel and the Palestinians and the degree to which religions should be protected from criticism. He did not mention Israel by name (he not only opposes the State of Israel but has wished for and has predicted its demise) but said: “They sent migrants from Europe, the United States… in order to establish a racist government in occupied Palestine.”

Many Western delegates at the conference walked out in protest. Hecklers shouted and a demonstrator in a clown’s wig was ejected. Some other delegates applauded. Israel had earlier recalled its ambassador to Switzerland after the Swiss president met the Iranian leader.

The conference, in Geneva, was called to discuss progress in countering racism and “related intolerance” as a follow up to a meeting in Durban in 2001. It seems to be copying the chaos that afflicted the first, with the difference that this time Iran has made itself an issue and that is important, because it does not bode well for the new dawn of relations with Iran that President Obama has called for. The world has taken huge strides against racism over the last two centuries – slavery has been abolished, Nazi German racial theories have been vanquished, apartheid has gone. It is easily forgotten how prevalent the concept of humankind being divided into “races” was until recently.