Letter from the UN: Fresh Start for Credibility?
Are 40 years of anti-Israel vitriol coming to end? With broad change on the secretary general’s agenda, relations at the UN could be warming up for the Jewish state.
At this spring’s meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, it was business as usual. Israel was the principal target of hostile speeches and resolutions; it was the only nation subjected to repeated censure. At the six-week session, which ended in mid-April, the delegates from 53 countries adopted three anti-Israel resolutions. One expressed concern about Israeli settlements on the West Bank as constituting violations of international law (the vote, 39 to 2 with 12 abstentions). A second condemned the use of force by the Israeli Army against Palestinian civilians (29 to 10, 14 abstentions); it said nothing about suicide bombers or other forms of violence directed against Israeli civilians. A third resolution demanded that Israel make no changes that would alter the physical and demographic character of “the Syrian Golan” (32 to 2, 19 abstentions).
The anti-Israel thrust of the Human Rights Commission is, of course, old news. In the past 40 years, at least one-quarter of its resolutions dealing with human rights violations have focused on Israel. In striking contrast, the most virulent international abusers of human rights have never been criticized. Immune to chastisement have been China, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe, not to mention Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Sudan, the practitioner of genocide in Darfur, actually remains a member of the commission. Avoiding any denunciation of Sudan, the commission, in response to world pressure, agreed at its spring session to merely create a “Special Rapporteur” who would look into the local situation.
But the attacks on Israel at the spring session still came as a surprise. The irony is that the Human Rights Commission—by conducting its usual focus-on-Israel-to-the-exclusion-of-the-rest-of-the-world exercise—may have missed a last chance to save itself. As part of a broad reform program of the United Nations structure announced last March, Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed the abolition of the commission. He said it is has been “increasingly undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism.” The result, he noted in rather sharp language, “a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations as a whole.”
When the commission’s meetings began this year, the American representative, former United States Senator Rudy Boschwitz, called on other members “to lower the decibel level” of the anti-Israel assault. He stressed the signs of change that had taken hold in the Middle East with Israel’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and several West Bank settlements. He also pointed to positive discussions between Israel and the new Palestinian leaders. After the dust had settled, the Israeli observer, Itzhak Levanon, commented that little had changed. “The commission’s credibility on issues related to Israel and the Middle East [stands] at an all-time low,” he said.
And it was evident that the commission’s majority of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes was hoping to repeat the Israel-bashing next year. One of this year’s resolutions set forth “as a matter of high priority” the inclusion of an agenda item for the anticipated 2006 session: “Question of the violation of human rights in the occupied Arab territories.”
It’s not surprising that the panel of statesmen and diplomats appointed by Annan to propose major reform found that the Human Rights Commission had come to lack credibility. The panel’s report contained the embarrassing finding that countries sought membership on the commission “not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others.” The consequence was the maintenance by the commission of “double standards in addressing human rights concerns.”
A close examination, using criteria established by Freedom House, a human rights nongovermental organization, finds that only 16 of the commission’s 53 members can be categorized as “free” countries. The other 37 member states fall into Freedom House’s “not free” or “partly free” categories. Quite a few are dictatorships, like Cuba, or authoritarian regimes, like Saudi Arabia. The makeup of the body explains how Libya could have been selected chairman in 2003 by a vote of 33 to 3, the rest absent or abstaining. It also helps explain the commission’s anti-Israel bias.
In place of the current commission, the secretary general’s reform package envisions a much smaller Human Rights Council that would be elected by a two-thirds majority of United Nations membership. That requirement would enable democratic members to exercise more leverage in the process.
Annan wanted it explicitly understood that “those elected to the council should undertake and abide by the highest human rights standards.” Under the reform proposal, the Human Rights Council would periodically review the conduct of all states. It would become a standing body (in contrast to the once-a-year sessions of the current commission) and would hold emergency meetings to address human rights crises. The proposed council, in Annan’s words, “must be a society of the committed.”
The report of Annan’s ad hoc panel emphasized how the Human Rights Commission has radically changed from its early years, when its members were serious advocates of democracy and human rights.
When the commission was established in 1947, its chairperson was Eleanor Roosevelt. She was surrounded by 17 others, most of whom came from democratic nations. Her principal associate was the French Nobel peace laureate René Cassin. It was Roosevelt and her colleagues who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The secretary general’s reform program comes before the United Nations General Assembly this month, when that body’s members will be represented by their heads of state. Whether Annan succeeds in his reform effort is uncertain. But that he is committed to promoting democratic institutions and ending double standards is as evident as his commitment to combating anti-Semitism.
Significantly, in January of this year the United Nations commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps with a two-month Holocaust exhibit in the lobby of its New York headquarters. The exhibit’s opening was preceded by the playing of “Hatikvah.” Annan also visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the first top United Nations official to do so.
Such an exhibit and program had seemed impossible a few years ago, but changes are taking place. For the first time in some four decades, the Israeli ambassador, Dan Gillerman, has been chosen as one of the General Assembly’s 21 vice presidents. Gillerman’s comment: “Nothing is impossible for Israel anymore….”
A little over a year ago, Annan attracted attention by saying something that had not been heard within the walls of the United Nations in many years. “The fight against anti-Semitism must be our fight,” he said, “and Jews everywhere must feel that the United Nations is their home, too.” The comments came at an unprecedented seminar—organized by Annan—entitled “Confronting Anti-Semitism: Education for Tolerance and Understanding.”
What had prompted kofi Annan to call that conference was a wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Western Europe, including synagogue desecrations and torching. “We are witnessing an alarming resurgence of this phenomenon in new forms and manifestations,” the secretary general noted.
Annan was careful to include the Middle East in his concern when he demanded the rejection of words and acts that “incited hatred against Jews in Israel or elsewhere.”
He called for endorsement of the recently adopted Berlin Declaration on Anti-Semitism which, he emphasized, “declared unambiguously that international developments or political issues, including those in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify anti-Semitism.’’
As world leaders gather to consider Annan’s reform proposals, the stakes are high on many levels. At one end is the question of whether the world body can regain its lost credibility. At the other end is the hope that one nation, and one people in particular, will come to believe that the United Nations is their home, too.