By Megan Davies
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A decade after an acrimonious summit on racism, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged nations on Thursday not to use the issue for "inflammatory rhetoric," a reference to attempts to brand Israel as racist.
"We are all aware that the original Durban conference and its follow-up two years ago caused immense controversy," the U.N. secretary-general told a meeting on Thursday marking the 10th anniversary of the Durban, South Africa, conference.
"We should condemn anyone who uses this platform to subvert that effort with inflammatory rhetoric, baseless assertions and hateful speech. Our common commitment must be to focus on the real problems of racism and intolerance," he said.
The Durban event was marked by wrangling about Middle Eastern and African demands for reparations for slavery, and attempts by Islamic countries to brand Israel as racist. Israel and the United States walked out of the conference.
A follow-up conference in Geneva in 2009 also descended into chaos after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel a "cruel and repressive racist regime." Ahmadinejad addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.
The tensions remain. Thursday's meeting was boycotted by more than a dozen Western nations, including the United States, Britain and France, and caused a coalition of pro-Israel groups to publicize a rival gathering across the street.
The Durban conference "and the anti-Semitic atmosphere in which it was held was a particularly unpleasant and divisive chapter in the U.N.'s history," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement this month. "It is not an event that should be celebrated."
The White House said the United States had not taken part in the event because "since its inception... the Durban process has included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism."
"We remain fully and firmly committed to upholding the human rights of all people and to combating racial discrimination, xenophobia, intolerance, anti-Semitism and bigotry," the statement said.
Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, criticized the world body for holding Thursday's event and hosting speeches from countries such as Iran.
"We cannot -- and will not -- ignore such a willful misuse and abuse of the United Nations," Prosor said in e-mailed comments. "Many of the world's free nations are joining Israel in refusing to give legitimacy to this year's Durban Commemoration. Fourteen nations are boycotting the event outright. This is a powerful message."
Ban said in his speech that racial intolerance "has increased in many parts of the world over the past decade" and that indicates "we have not done enough to stem the tide."
South African President Jacob Zuma said "racism continues to pose a challenge the same way it did in 2001."
"Racism and racial discrimination continue to be a brutal attack on human dignity, an affront to self-worth of individuals and has a prolonged and negative impact on its victims," he told the meeting.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)