Concerns are high that this week’s UN anti-racism conference may descend into heated debate over Israel that marred the last such gathering eight years ago.
Already, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whose comments have often been interpreted as calling for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust — plans to speak tomorrow as the conference opens.
The US and the EU had not decided on Friday whether to attend the meeting or boycott it over Islamic countries’ demands to condemn Israel and call for a ban on defaming religion.
Israel and Canada have said they won’t attend over concerns about a possible repeat of verbal attacks on the Jewish state.
“We have made clear ... that we cannot tolerate it if this anti-racism conference is turned into an accusatory event, a one-sided event against the state of Israel,” said Thomas Steg, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Many Muslim countries want curbs to free speech to prevent insults to Islam they say have proliferated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US. Riots erupted across the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005.
The five-day meeting in Geneva is designed to review progress in fighting racism since the UN’s first such conference eight years ago in South Africa.
That meeting, which ended four days before 9/11, was dominated by quarrels over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery. The US and Israel walked out midway through the conference over a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism — the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land — to racism.
Those references were removed from the final declaration, though it did cite “the plight of the Palestinians” as an issue.
Many of the 2001 issues — such as criticism of Israel — now are re-emerging.
Direct references to Israel and to defamation of religion have been dropped from the draft document for this year’s conference, but there is pressure from Muslim countries to reinsert them.
Some sticking points remained Friday that could unravel the conference, such as Iran’s objection to a paragraph stating that the Holocaust must never be forgotten.
The US has said it remains concerned about “restrictions on freedom of expression that could result from some of the document’s language related to ‘incitement’ to religious hatred.”
“There are still issues which remain and these are being discussed,” UN spokesman Ramu Damodaran said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Organization of The Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, will take part in the meeting’s opening. Officials from 103 states have confirmed their participation, the UN said.
Jewish and Muslim lobby groups, as well as human rights groups, are prepared to turn out en masse.