NATIONS — Canada will boycott Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the United Nations on Wednesday, saying his outbursts about the Holocaust and Israel are “shameful.”
Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon will be at the world body to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly’s annual debate, but officials signal he and other members of the Canadian delegation will vacate the Canadian seats when the Islamic republic’s president approaches the podium.
Walking out of the chamber is seen as a strong diplomatic show of disgust at the UN — and since the chamber is generally packed on the first day of the annual summit, Canada’s empty seats will not go unnoticed.
One of the first speakers of the day will be U.S. President Barack Obama, who is making his debut address before the assembly.
“President Ahmadinejad’s repeated denial of the Holocaust and his anti-Israel comments run counter to the values of the UN General Assembly, and they’re shameful,” said one Canadian official.
“He uses his public appearances to provoke the international community, and that is why Canada’s seats will be empty.”
The gesture is a step stronger than one announced Tuesday by the German Foreign Ministry, which asked other European Union member states to walk out of the General Assembly chamber if Ahmadinejad again denies the Holocaust, or makes anti-Semitic statements.
The Canadian initiative will be welcomed by Israel, which Tuesday urged all delegates in the 192-member chamber to stay away when Ahmadinejad speaks.
“A few days ago, he gave a new speech of hate,” Gabriela Shalev, Israeli ambassador to the UN, told Israeli army radio.
“The simple fact of leaving the room during his speech, or not to be present during it, is a symbolic act.”
Shalev insisted Israel had not been asking countries to “promise” they would boycott Ahmadinejad’s address.
“We are simply reminding them of how dangerous this person and the country that he leads are,” she said.
Iranian officials said this week that Ahmadinejad intended to use his speech to offer a message of “peace and friendship.”
But Ahmadinejad sparked new outrage just last week by again calling Nazi Germany’s murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust a “myth,” then saying the angry reaction he provoked was a “source of pride” to him. His anti-Israel statements have included calling for the country — created by the UN shortly after the Second World War — to be “wiped of the map.”
Canada annually leads a multi-nation effort in the UN General Assembly to highlight in successive resolutions Iran’s poor human-rights record. The effort infuriates Iran, which pulls out all the diplomatic stops to try to block it.
On the front burner at the moment is the fate of hundreds of people arrested in the violent crackdown Ahmadinejad and his supporters ordered as opposition rose to his disputed re-election as president in June.
Among those jailed was Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, an internationally recognized documentary filmmaker, who was in the Islamic republic for Newsweek magazine to cover the election and ensuing protests.
“We remain deeply concerned by the human-rights situation in Iran, and the crackdown on legitimate democratic protests, and the arrests of Iranians and foreign nationals, are unacceptable,” added the Canadian official.
“We will continue to demand the release of those unjustly detained, including Canadian Newsweek reporter, Maziar Bahari.”
The Canadian boycott comes as the Obama administration has sought to launch a dialogue with Iran, and direct talks between the two countries over Western opposition to Iran’s nuclear program are scheduled for Oct. 1.
However, Obama officials, among them U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, denounced Ahmadinejad’s comments on the Holocaust.
Obama is expected to try to avoid Ahmadinejad at the UN, even though he said in a 2007 campaign debate he was prepared to meet personally with the Iranian leader — without preconditions.
The West suspects Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb, though Iran, despite being oil-rich, said it wants to produce nuclear energy only.
Canada's relations with Iran have been strained since the July 2003 death of Zahra Kazemi, a Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in custody after she was arrested outside a notorious Tehran prison.