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Iranian President To Address Shunned UN Racism Summit

The UN's high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay

The UN's high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay

GENEVA (Reuters) -- A United Nations conference on racism shunned by the United States and many of its allies opens on April 20 when a speech by Iran's president, also regarded with suspicion by the West, will be the focus of attention.

Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Italy are among the countries avoiding the summit because of fears it will be a platform for what U.S. President Barack Obama called "hypocritical and counterproductive" antagonism toward Israel.

Mahmud Ahmadinejad is the only major head of state who accepted a United Nations invitation to take part in the Durban II meeting in Geneva, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also address on April 20.

Britain and the Czech Republic are sending their Geneva ambassadors to the meeting but will not dispatch top officials.

The Iranian leader's speech, coinciding with Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, could overshadow the summit which the United Nations wants to focus on easing ethnic and racial tensions that threaten migrant workers and minorities.

Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be "wiped off the map" and questioned whether the Nazi Holocaust occurred.

"His track record does not leave us feeling very comfortable about what he might say, given what he's said in the past on the Holocaust, on Israel, and on anti-Semitism," one official said about Ahmadinejad.

"We don't normally walk out of conferences run by the United Nations and we'd rather avoid doing it. But that doesn't mean that there aren't red lines that, if breached, would prompt us to take action."

The United States and Israel walked out of the last major UN race conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 after Arab states sought to label Zionism as racist.

'Clean Start'

An introductory paragraph "reaffirming" the language of the 2001 meeting declaration, which singled out Israel for scrutiny, proved most controversial in the run-up to the Geneva summit.

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking at a news conference after the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, said Washington wanted a "clean slate" before tackling race and discrimination issues at the United Nations.

"If we have a clean start, a fresh start, we are happy to go," he said, explaining the U.S. position. "If you're incorporating a previous conference that we weren't involved with [and] that raised a whole set of objectionable provisions, then we couldn't participate."

The U.S. Human Rights Network, an umbrella organization of 300 activist groups, decried Washington's decision to stay away from the summit, three months after Obama became the first African-American U.S. president.

His election "does not close the chapter on racism in the U.S.," it said. "It doesn't end the U.S. obligation to challenge racism globally. On the contrary, the world is looking to the Obama administration to take a leading role in this struggle for racial justice and human rights."

The United States largely stood aside during negotiations about the Geneva text and while EU countries were involved, they had reservations throughout. Human rights activists said the absence of Western diplomats at this week's conference opened the possibility the document could be revamped or not adopted.

The paltry participation at the summit is a blow to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who has made ensuring a full house in Geneva one of her main goals in the post she took over from Canada's Louise Arbour last year.

It could also hinder future UN efforts to tackle sensitive issues related to race, ethnicity, and religion, which Pillay has warned could explode into violence if ignored.

Even so, Pope Benedict called the meeting "an important initiative" and said fighting intolerance would require "firm and concrete action, at a national and international level."

"I sincerely urge all delegates at the Geneva conference to work together in a spirit of dialogue and mutual acceptance to put an end to all forms of racism, discrimination, and intolerance," he said after his weekly Sunday address.