Dozens of diplomats walked out of a speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Geneva on Monday when the Iranian president accused Israel of being "a totally racist" regime.
Ahmadinejad's appearance has overshadowed the substance of the weeklong United Nations racism conference, dubbed Durban II, which aims to provide a blueprint for combating intolerance and discrimination worldwide.
Durban II, which runs until Friday, is the sequel to a divisive 2001 gathering in Durban, South Africa, and will not include Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States.
The US, along with Canada, Israel, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany decided to boycott Durban II over concerns that it would be used as a platform for criticism of Israel.
In his address, Ahmadinejad said the state of Israel had been created "on the pretext of Jewish suffering" from the Second World War.
"Following the Second World War they resorted to military aggressions to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering," Ahmadinejad told the conference through a translator.
"And they sent migrants from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine," he said.
"And in fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine."
His remarks coincide with the start of the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations being marked by Israel. Ahmadinejad has previously suggested the Holocaust never happened and has reportedly called for Israel's destruction.
British ambassador Peter Gooderham walked out along with representatives from 22 other European countries. Delegates said they would return after he had finished speaking.
Swiss ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dante Martinelli, remained in the conference room. The foreign ministry said Ahmadinejad had the right to freedom of expression.
According to Gooderham however, "such outrageous anti-Semitic remarks should have no place in a UN anti-racism forum".
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store told the conference after Ahmadinejad had finished speaking that his words amounted to incitement to hatred, and through his words Iran had made itself the odd man out at the meeting by undermining the agreement so far on the conference declaration.
"Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective efforts of the many," he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned Ahmadinejad's remarks.
"I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even provoke," he said in a statement.
Several protestors from the French Union of Jewish Students, dressed in multicoloured wigs and red noses, interrupted Ahmadinejad's speech with shouts of "Shame! shame!" and "Racist! racist!".
"We did it because it's all a farce," Joelle Jakubowicz said. "You can't fight racism if you are racist yourself."
Earlier in the day United Nations officials sought to salvage the conference, hit by the major absences.
Ban Ki-moon defended a disputed conference text as "carefully balanced" and said the conference was necessary to confront simmering racial tensions that could otherwise trigger social unrest and violence.
"I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside. I hope they will not do so for long," he told the Geneva meeting.
Washington announced on Saturday that it would boycott the conference because of concerns about a declaration prepared for the meeting that reaffirmed language adopted at the last major UN race conference in Durban in 2001.
The United States and Israel walked out of that meeting when Arab states sought to define Zionism as racist.
While that wording was not included in the final 2001 conference declaration and programme of action, it did single out the Jewish state for criticism.
The first paragraph of the Geneva meeting document – which "reaffirms the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as it was adopted" – has proved most contentious. The rest of the text, negotiated over several months in Geneva, does not refer to Israel or the Middle East.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged states attending the Geneva conference to adopt that declaration.
"We all should be mindful that a failure to agree on the way forward would negatively reverberate on the human rights agenda for years to come," Pillay said at the meeting's opening.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey will not attend this week's Durban review conference in Geneva.
A foreign ministry spokesman said Switzerland would be represented at the talks at ambassador level. Several weeks ago Calmy-Rey warned: "It's very important that Geneva's name is not associated with a failure."
Ahmadinejad is the only major head of state to accept an invitation to take part.
Earlier on Monday Israel announced it was recalling its ambassador to Switzerland for consultations. Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said that while Israel would be commemorating six million Jews killed by the Nazis, "in Switzerland the guest of honour is a racist and a Holocaust denier who doesn't conceal his intention to wipe Israel off the face of this Earth".
swissinfo with agencies
The United Nations Durban Review Conference takes place in Geneva from April 20-24. It will evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
After a wide-ranging debate, the conference adopted by consensus an action plan to provide a new framework for guiding governments, non-governmental organisations and other institutions in their efforts to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
Among its measures for combating racism are strengthening education, fighting poverty, improving resources available to victims of racism, and bolstering respect for the rule of law and for human rights. Critics say little of this has happened since 2001.
National anti-racism progress since 2001
According to the Federal Commission against Racism, Switzerland has shown mixed results.
There is still no national programme of action against racism or anti-discrimination law putting Art. 8 para. 2 of the Federal Constitution into practice, similar to the laws on equality between men and women and for the disabled.
There is very little victim-counselling available in cases of racial discrimination or state financial support for anti-racism NGOs.
The justice system is still hesitant when it comes to legal rulings over political expressions of racism and in cases of refused admittance.
Funds are lacking for federal anti-racism institutions and there is limited willingness to form a national human rights institution.
But certain positive steps have been taken. These include: the setting up of an ad-hoc anti-racism service within the interior ministry; new cantonal constitutions prohibiting discrimination; racism-awareness measures among cantonal police forces; the monitoring of racism and discrimination in Switzerland at the federal level and by NGOs; training on anti-racism in the health service; and greater equality in training and education by the standardisation of the school system (Harmos).