The 2009 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, also known as the Durban Review Conference, opened on April 20th with a hate-filled speech by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad directed at the state of Israel.
Dozens of delegates left the assembly in protest. Other nations boycotted the conference altogether, concerned over efforts by some to use the conference to promote anti-Semitism and stifle freedom of speech.
In response to the Iranian President's remarks, U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Alejandro Wolff said, "It does a grave injustice to the Iranian nation and the Iranian people, and we call on the Iranian leadership to show much more measured, moderate, honest and constructive rhetoric when dealing with issues in the region."
The United States walked out of the Durban Conference in 2001 because the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the Conference, equated Zionism with racism, and prejudged issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The U.S. had hoped for a new review conference document that would deal fairly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and re-focus this year's conference squarely on racism and discrimination. Efforts by many country delegations, including Russia as chair, and senior United Nations officials, made significant improvements. But the text still contained language that reaffirmed key points in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action from 2001, to which the United States remains opposed.
The United States also had serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding so-called "incitement to religious hatred" that runs counter to the U.S. commitment to free speech. It is a concern shared by human rights monitoring organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders.
In a statement issued April 18th, U.S. State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood noted that "the United States is profoundly committed to ending racism and racial discrimination. The abiding commitment to the fight against racism and all forms of discrimination arises from the most painful pages of our history, and the most cherished values of our nation."
The U.S., said Mr. Wood, believes "that people of every color and creed are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that equality and nondiscrimination are fundamental principles of international law."