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(Geneva) - Governments attending a UN racism conference used by Iran's president to give a hate-filled speech should respond by staying to ensure that the conference agrees on a strong anti-racism message, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a speech at the Geneva conference to question the Holocaust, singling out Israel and Zionism as embodying modern racism, prompting numerous Western governments to walk out of the conference hall.

"Ahmadinejad's speech contradicted the spirit and purpose of the conference, which is to defeat the scourge of racism," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The best response to Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric is to stay in Geneva and rebut it."

Human Rights Watch urged the European Union member states and other delegations that walked out during the Ahmadinejad speech to return to the chamber and work together to adopt the draft declaration against racism. As the Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store, said in reference to the Iranian president's speech: "Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective efforts of the many."

The review conference, intended to follow up on the 2001 Durban racism conference and push for UN action to end racism, was earlier undermined by the refusal of the United States to participate, which prompted walkouts by Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Poland.

During his speech, Ahmadinejad told the conference that: "Following World War II they [‘powerful countries'] resorted to military aggressions to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering and the ambiguous and dubious question of holocaust."

Iran was isolated ahead of the conference when it tried and failed during negotiations to reintroduce the concept of defamation of religion and to remove the reference to remembering the Holocaust.

The draft document, adopted after preparatory negotiations chaired by Russia, contains no reference to Israel or the Middle East and rejects the dangerous concept that religions, as opposed to individuals, could be defamed or have their rights violated. It also reaffirms the tragedy of the Holocaust and condemns anti-Semitism. In addition, it fully protects the right to freedom of expression as defined under international law, affirms and strengthens the call for the protection of migrants' rights, and acknowledges multiple and aggravated forms of discrimination.

Ahmadinejad failed to make reference to Iran's discrimination against its own religious and ethnic minorities. Ahmadinejad's government routinely represses dissent and has continued the decades-old repression of Iran's religious and ethnic minorities, including the Baha'i religious minority (, Human Rights Watch said. Iran's record of repressing peaceful dissent does great injustice to the struggle against racism and discrimination.

"Despite this ugly speech, governments can still rescue the conference and ensure that the world agrees to a strong mandate for the UN to tackle racism," de Rivero said. "Racism does real damage to real people and it shouldn't be manipulated for political ends."

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