GENEVA - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prompted a walkout from his speech to a U.N. racism summit on Monday when he accused Israel of racism against the Palestinians.
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 Israel.
The boycott left Ahmadinejad 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 Nazi Holocaust, accused Israel of occupying Palestinian territories on the pretext of Jewish suffering.
Dozens of diplomats in the audience promptly got up and left the hall for the duration of the speech, which coincided with Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Such outrageous anti-Semitic remarks should have no place in a U.N. anti-racism forum, said British ambassador Peter Gooderham, whose country chose not to send a minister to Geneva.
And 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.
FEARS OF CONTROVERSY
Eight Western nations including the United States were avoiding the meeting altogether because of fears it would be dominated by what U.S. President Barack Obama called hypocritical and counterproductive antagonism toward the Jewish state.
However, a number of the delegations that remained behind applauded Ahmadinejad's speech.
Arab and Muslim attempts to single out Israel for criticism had prompted the United States to walk out of the first U.N. summit on racism, in South Africa in 2001.
Although the declaration prepared for the follow-up conference does not refer explicitly to Israel or the Middle East, its first paragraph reaffirms a text adopted at the 2001 meeting which includes six paragraphs on those sensitive issues.
U.S. President Barack Obama, the first African-American leader of the United States, said on Saturday that Washington wanted a clean start to engage with the United Nations on the issues to be tackled at the meeting.
Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Italy then announced they would also stay away from the week-long meeting.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the conference participants on Monday to do all they could to ensure the declaration is adopted at week's end.
This was necessary, she said, to restore confidence in the United Nations as a forum to address frictions that can explode into xenophobic attacks, as occurred in her native South Africa last year when 62 foreigners were killed.
We all should be mindful that a failure to agree on the way forward would negatively reverberate on the human rights agenda for years to come, Pillay said at the meeting's opening.