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Who's calling whom a racist?

Geneva anti-racism conference dissolves into finger-pointing and boycotts.

Demonstrators stand outside the press conference room after Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the Durban Review Conference on racism at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva April 20, 2009. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

GENEVA — The 2001 Durban conference on racism came to embody a reflexively anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric. When U.N. organizers of the second racism conference invited Iran’s virulently anti-Israeli president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to be the opening speaker, they were asking for trouble.

Ahmadinejad did not disappoint.

What had promised to be a chaotic gathering seems to be dissolving into a circus as the conference gets underway. The United States, Canada, Australia and several other countries had announced well in advance that they would boycott the affair. Britain and France agreed to attend, but after Ahmadinejad lashed out at Israel as “racist perpetrators of genocide,” their delegations also walked out in disgust. The vehemence of the Iranian president’s remarks drew rounds of applause from supporters in the audience. In contrast, a group of protesters dressed as clowns to underscore the absurdity of the situation were quickly hustled out of the room.

The conference, which will continue through this week, is billed as a review of progress made since Durban. The concern this time around was not the watered-down statement that is likely to come out of the discussions. That was negotiated in advance, and it will not say much that is controversial. But the media circus focusing on the events surrounding the conference is another story and is likely to be far more destructive.

The fierceness of Ahmadinejad’s remarks surpassed even the wildest expectations and stoked the media fervor. After he had spoken, U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, clearly shaken, issued an unusually blunt statement deploring the whole sorry affair. “This is the opposite of what the conference sought to achieve,” Ban Ki Moon said. “This makes it significantly more difficult to build constructive solutions to the very real problem of racism.” Ban Ki Moon said that he had talked with Ahmadinejad about the importance of galvanizing the international community towards a common goal. Ahmadinejad had clearly not listened.

Given the shambles of the first day, it is hard to see what will come out of the next few. The Swiss are already appalled. Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey wisely decided not to attend the conference.

Switzerland’s president, Hans Rudolf Merz, was not so prescient. He has come under heavy criticism for having invited Ahmadinejad for dinner on Sunday night. Critics here point out that Merz is not an expert on foreign policy, and that Ahmadinejad is not in Switzerland on a state visit. The Swiss stress that the conference is a U.N. affair, and since Geneva is the European headquarters for the U.N., they couldn’t refuse to have the conference staged here. They may think differently in the future.