Støre stirs controversy in Geneva

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Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre sparked criticism at home on Monday when he opted against boycotting a verbal tirade by the president of Iran at a UN conference on racism in Geneva. Støre defended his decision to listen to the Iranian leader and then launch a verbal counterattack of his own.

Støre (photo, right) simply didn’t see much point in joining other allies who either stayed away from the conference entirely or walked out during the address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,who accused Israel of being racist against the Palestinians.

Norway’s foreign minister, from the Labour Party, thought it would be much more effective to hear Ahmadinejad out, and then deliver a sharp verbal disagreement with Ahmadinejad’s remarks.

Which he did. Støre, in his own address to the UN conference delegates after Ahmadinejad spoke, said the Iranian president’s allegations ran”counter to the very spirit and dignity of this conference.” He added that Ahmadinejad’s allegations contributed to”the incitement of hatred, spreading politics of fear and promoting an indiscriminate message of intolerance.”Støre claimed that Ahmadinejad’s “message” left Iran as “the odd man out. And Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective effort of the many.”

Dagfinn Høybråten, leader of the conservative Christian Democrats Party in Norway and a staunch supporter of Israel, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Monday evening that he thought Støre should have followed the lead of “key allies” such as Germany, the US and Sweden in boycotting the UN conference because of its decision to invite Ahmadinejad to speak. At the very least, Høybråten suggested, Støre should have joined other delegates in leaving the conference room during Ahmadinejad’s address.

The conference was disrupted several times by demonstrators. Some government leaders called the event “chaotic” and bordering on a farce, since the conference aimed to fight racism yet allowed Iran’s leader to deliver remarks that many considered racist in their character.

Støre said he decided to attend the conference “to convey Norway’s views,” that the fight against racism and racial discrimination is of the “utmost” importance.

“We who have made a point of defending freedom of expression cannot opt for non-attendance as a strategy, leaving the floor to precisely those who hold opposite views,” Støre said in his address “We will not surrender the floor of the United Nations to the extremists.”