UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - The president of the United Nations General Assembly was a last-minute no-show at the UN’s annual ceremony commemorating the Holocaust, following an intense lobbying campaign by pro-Israel organizations to have him removed from the program.
Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann had come under fire for his harsh criticisms of Israeli policies, leading to suspicions that his failure to deliver a scheduled speech at the event was due to political considerations.
The incident comes at a delicate time in the UN-Israel relationship, which has always been rocky but has been further frayed by the recent war in Gaza.
At Tuesday’s International Day of Commemoration ceremony, d’Escoto was replaced by General Assembly Vice-President Joseph Nsengimana of Rwanda, who delivered a statement on d’Escoto’s behalf. However, d’Escoto’s name was still on the official program, indicating that the replacement likely came at the last moment.
According to a spokesperson, d’Escoto had been traveling as of Monday and was not able to make it back in time for the event.
However, d’Escoto’s absence also averted what was likely to be an awkward scene at the ceremony. In recent days, several strongly pro-Israel Jewish organizations had called for him to step aside, citing his attacks on Israeli policies and his embrace of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following Ahmadinejad’s speech at the UN in September 2008.
Abraham H. Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said Friday that d’Escoto’s “presence would be an insult to the memory of the millions of victims slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis and a slap in the face to the survivors of those atrocities, to the families of those lost, and to the Jewish people.”
The ADL’s call was echoed by groups including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, B’nai B’rith International, and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors.
One elderly attendee at Monday’s event said that there were plans for audience members to turn their backs to the stage in protest if d’Escoto spoke.
The attendee did not know whether any group was behind the planned protest, saying that he had heard of it by word of mouth. Although he admitted that he was not sure exactly who d’Escoto was or what he had said, he planned to participate in it.
Since d’Escoto became General Assembly president in September 2008, the Nicaraguan priest has frequently attacked Israeli policies in ways that have drawn outcries from critics.
In November, he accused Israel of “crucifying our Palestinian brothers and sisters” and referred to it as an “apartheid state.” In December, he decried Israel’s refusal to allow UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk into the country and announced that he had received death threats as a result of his political views.
And on 14 January, he labeled Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip as “genocide” — a remark that may have been the immediate impetus for the recent calls for his removal.
In the original event program, d’Escoto was to have been followed by Israeli ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev, who has been one of d’Escoto’s fiercest critics and cancelled a planned meeting with him in December.
Instead, Nsengimana read a statement on d’Escoto’s behalf calling on listeners to “go beyond remembrance” to prevent genocide “today and in the future” — seemingly anodyne remarks that gained bite given d’Escoto’s previously stated belief that the Gaza war was an act of genocide.
In response, Shalev stressed that “the Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust was unique” and denounced Hamas and Iran to applause from the audience.
D’Escoto, a US-born priest of the Maryknoll Missionaries, served as Nicaragua’s foreign minister from 1979 to 1990 under the Sandinista government, and remains an advisor to President Daniel Ortega.
The uproar over d’Escoto comes at a low point in the always-tumultuous relationship between Israel and the UN.
For months, the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) had been calling attention to the humanitarian crisis resulting from Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. On 14 December, Israel detained and ultimately deported Falk, who had been appointed by the UN to report on the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza.
These tensions increased enormously once Israel began its attack on Hamas on 27 December. During the three-week war, Israel struck the UNRWA headquarters and two of its schools. The worst of these attacks, a 6 January mortar strike on a UNRWA-run school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, killed over 40 civilians, according to UN officials. Israeli army officials initially claimed that militants had been firing from the school, but later backed off these claims.
UNRWA officials repeatedly called for Israel to cease its offensive to alleviate the urgent humanitarian situation in Gaza, while supporters of Israel accused the UNRWA of helping to nurture Hamas terrorism.
Israel and Hamas both ignored a 8 January Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.
D’Escoto’s absence from Monday’s ceremony may have been intended to avoid any incident that would do further damage to the UN-Israel relationship.
However, the next hurdle may be only months away. In late April, the UN-sponsored Durban Review Conference is scheduled to be held in Geneva.
It will revisit ground covered by the 2001 World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa. That summit featured fierce criticism of Israel, and both Israel and the US ultimately pulled their delegations from it.
Fears that April’s so-called “Durban II” conference will be a repeat of the first have led Israel and Canada to preemptively announce that they will not participate in it. And pro-Israel lobbying groups have already begun to campaign against the conference. On Monday, the ADL issued a statement calling “for responsible nations to get up and walk out” on it.
All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden. Jim Lobe in Washington contributed to this article.