The United Nations’ first global racism conference in eight years begins today – overshadowed by boycotts and bitter acrimony.The US, under its first black president, is just one of those staying away. And many fear Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will hijack the event when he addresses the gathering today – by attacking Israel. Yesterday he repeated allegations made at the last summit, in Durban in 2001, equating Zionism with racism. “I think it is extremely regrettable that this representative of the Ayatollah regime should be treated as if he were really caring about human rights,” said Yigal Palmor, the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman. “The fact that he will address the human rights conference is, in itself, a very sad parody of what this conference should be about.” Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada are all boycotting the event. France is attending and so is the UK, but it is only sending a low-level delegation. However UN spokesman Rupert Colville insisted the show would still go on. “There are another 185 or so member states of the United Nations who as far as we know are still in this conference,” he said. “Racism is an issue that affects every country, everywhere, millions of people, many different groups. It is very unfortunate that one or two issues appear to have completely dominated the agenda at least from the perspective of certain countries.” The five-day conference is a follow-up to Durban 2001.