A day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused an uproar with a speech attacking Israel at a U.N. conference on racism, the U.N. said Tuesday that Ahmadinejad had actually dropped language from the speech that described the Holocaust as "ambiguous and dubious."
The U.N. and the Iranian Mission in Geneva did not comment on why the change was made. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, however, said he had met with Ahmadinejad before his speech Monday and reminded him that the U.N. had adopted resolutions "to revoke the equation of Zionism with racism and to reaffirm the historical facts of the Holocaust."
Ahmadinejad may have decided to drop the Holocaust phrase that was in his original text to deliver his condemnation of Israel in a more palatable fashion for many countries.
Still, Ahmadinejad's accusation that the West used the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians still provoked walkouts by delegates including every European Union country in attendance. But others, including those from the Vatican, stayed because they said he stopped short of denying the Holocaust.
The walkout came after Ahmadinejad accused Western nations of complicity in violence against Palestinians surrounding the foundation of Israel.
The original text of his speech said, "Following World War II, they resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of Holocaust."
U.N. spokeswoman Marie Heuze said that U.N. officials had checked back with the interpreters and the Farsi recording of Ahmadinejad's speech, and determined that the Iranian president had dropped the terms "ambiguous and dubious," referring instead to "the abuse of the question of the Holocaust."
Adding to the confusion, the live English translation of the speech did not mention the word "Holocaust" at all, while the French stayed true to the spoken words of Ahmadinejad. The English translator apparently was following the prepared text and stopped speaking when the Iranian president changed the wording.
The meeting turned chaotic almost from the start when two protesters in rainbow wigs tossed red clown noses at Ahmadinejad as he began his speech with a Muslim prayer. A Jewish student group from France said it had been trying to convey "the masquerade that this conference represents."
The United States and eight other Western countries had already boycotted the event that started on the eve of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, because of concerns Muslim countries would drown out all other issues with calls to denounce Israel and restrict free speech when it comes to criticizing Islam.
More than 100 other countries on Tuesday approved a 16-page declaration calling on the world to combat intolerance. The declaration did not mention Israel, but among dozens of other points, it reaffirms a 2001 statement issued after the U.N.'s first global racism meeting in South Africa that recognized the "plight of the Palestinians" while affirming the Jewish state's right to security.
That support of the 2001 document was cited by President Barack Obama's administration as the reason it boycotted the Geneva meeting.
African-American groups participating in the conference sharply criticized Obama and his administration for not attending and not signing its declaration against racism.
"The boycott of the Obama administration both saddens us and angers us," said Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights.
"We will not let Mr. Obama off the hook simply because he stands inside black skin, or because his campaign served to energize and inspire thousands of young people and people of color," she said.
Ban, the U.N. chief, was heartened at the adoption of the declaration by consensus and urged countries not at the conference to rejoin the fight against racism.
In Paris, France's foreign minister criticized the U.S. decision to stay away from an event featuring Ahmadinejad while declaring itself open for negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
"More than a paradox, it could really be a mistake," Bernard Kouchner said.
'A bit of sanity'
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a note Tuesday thanking those nations that boycotted the Geneva conference.
"This decision restored a bit of sanity to a world in which an anti-racism conference turns its stage over to a Holocaust denier who expresses his desire to wipe Israel off the map," the note said, according to his office.
Most of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric was not new but its timing and high profile could complicate U.S. efforts to warm ties with the Islamic republic. Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, denounced what he called "the Ahmadinejad spectacle."
In Tehran, some 200 people gathered at the airport to give Ahmadinejad a hero's welcome as he returned home.
Iranian state TV described him as having defended Palestinian rights against a racist regime. The official IRNA news agency quoted lawmaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar as saying that Ahmadinejad's speech in Geneva was a "great achievement for (Iran's ruling) system."
The U.N. said it expelled 13 people Tuesday from the conference, including members of Jewish and Iranian groups that disrupted Ahmadinejad's speech.
"At the United Nations we demand that conferences and debates be held in a spirit of mutual respect and dignity," Heuze said.