UN in the Dock at UPenn

— by Lori Lowenthal Marcus

New York City wasn’t the only place in which the treatment of Israel at the United Nations was under discussion recently.

On Sunday evening, September 25, 2011, Penn Friends of Israel and the International Affairs Association hosted Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, at Houston Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

UN Watch is a non-governmental organization the goal of which is to measure the performance of the UN according to its founding mission. Neuer’s topic was, “From Eleanor Roosevelt to Qaddafi: An Insider’s Account of the Rise and Fall of Human Rights at the U.N.”

More after the jump.
Neuer spoke to a packed crowd for well over an hour, during which time he discussed various venues and events at the UN which are perceived by many as biased against Israel. Neuer discussed the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Durban Conference on Racism — from which UN Watch was barred — and the recent effort of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to evade negotiations with Israel and instead obtain Palestinian Statehood through the United Nations itself.

Repeatedly critical of certain aspects of the UN, stating that “one dictator, one vote” is often what passes as democracy at the United Nations, and that far too often the only expertise regarding human rights for member nations that sit on the UNHRC is their violations of it, Neuer seemed to surprise at least some members of the audience when he rejected the suggestion that perhaps it was time to do away with the global institution. “It is an indispensable forum,” because at least portions of it such as “the World Health Organization, international labor organizations, food groups, telecommunications,” are essential. “Even such critics as [President] Bush and [former US Ambassador to the UN John] Bolton, didn’t speak in terms of getting rid of the UN.”

Nevertheless, the bulk of Neuer’s talk was devoted to detailing the highly politicized and virulently anti-Israel theme at play throughout much of the United Nations. Of particular concern is what is now known as the Human Rights Council, formerly the Human Rights Commission, but according to Neuer by either name the body is nearly always run, and invariably dominated by the “greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses.” Neuer noted over the course of the past two years, China, Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia have all held a seat on the UNHRC. And while the world’s worst human rights abuses have often gone ignored, “a disproportionate amount of time is spent singling out one member state for criticism, and that state is Israel” he said.

Neuer gave many examples of the ways in which, in the distorted world of the UNHRC, Israel is frequently presented as the grossest violator of human rights. For example, over the past five years, the Council has passed approximately sixty resolutions condemning a nation for committing human rights violations, forty of which have been directed at Israel. He pointed out that over the past six months more than 2500 Syrians have been massacred by their own government, yet Syria has not received a single rebuke from the UNHRC [between the time of Neuer’s talk and publication, the UN Security Council was presented with a condemnation of Syria’s brutal crackdown on pro-reform protesters, but it was vetoed by Russia and China]. Furthermore, the UNHRC has a standard agenda of ten general action items, one of which is always reserved for “addressing human rights violations against those in the occupied territories,” i.e., condemning Israel.

Another example of the way in which Israel is singled out unfairly at the UN is in the fact that while all countries in the world are divided into regional groups, Israel is barred from membership in the Asian group of which it should be a member, because the Arab nation members refuse to allow it. Yet one more example, amongst several others he gave, is that over the past five years the UNHRC has met in approximately a dozen emergency sessions, half of which were devoted to excoriating Israel. And the basis for those condemnations often ignored the context as, for instance, when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted in June, 2006, Israel responded with military reprisals, yet only Israel’s actions were condemned, not that of Hamas in abducting the soldier. The Iranian clampdown on non-violent protesters of the Green Revolution of 2011 was never condemned, nor was the brutal government repression of Muslim Uighurs, only efforts by Israel, which efforts were motivated by aggression on the part of its enemy, has been addressed by the UNHRC.

Moving on to the UN General Assembly, Neuer explained that the effort of PA President Abbas to attain statehood through a resolution in the UN is likely to be approved, given that the combined Arab and Muslim Nations have an automatic majority in the GA. But Neuer believes there will not be a significant substantive change if the PA is elevated to non-voting member state status. It already has a contingent present at the UN, it has a place at a table, albeit towards the back of the room, and it has the name “Palestine” already displayed on a nameplate where its representatives are seated. The one area in which the change may have some bearing will be in the PA’s ability to engage, and have others engage on its behalf, in lawfare against the Jewish State.

Elias Okwara, a 23-year old Drexel Junior from Kenya, spent part of last summer in Jordan, as part of his school’s Peace Studies Program. Okwara is in Drexel’s International Area Studies program with a concentration in Justice and Human Rights, and his research focuses on contemporary approaches to international peace and security.

Okwara embraces the global model of the UN, and he had been told that the talk was going to be an anti-UN event. During the brief question and answer session, Okwara asked Neuer about the Goldstone Report, which was the outcome of a UN investigation into Israel’s incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. The Report, written by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, “excoriated Israel and exonerated Hamas,” according to Neuer. It accused Israeli leadership of intentionally targeting civilians.

One of the other members of the investigation, Christine Chinkin, prior to her being appointed had signed a letter to the London Times accusing Israel of war crimes. Goldstone himself later recanted much of the most damaging portions of the report, but the UN considers the Goldstone Report, as written, to represent its official view of Cast Lead.

Despite hearing clear criticism of the UN by Neuer, Okwara said that it was “founded on very specific and detailed information, and I could not help but seriously reflect on the issues he raised.”

Okwara was glad he came because despite his own work in the field, he found Neuer’s talk to be “enlightening.” Okwara added, “I am a scholar and a keen believer in the UN, and for a person like me intent on playing my part in the international arena, I have no room to be dogmatic.”

Penn Friends of Israel is a new initiative that was created at the end of the last academic year in response to a perceived need for a group that wasn’t at one end of the spectrum or the other, but rather for a “group in the middle that could bring voices together from across the spectrum.” Noah Feit, president of the student group, started it along with sophomore Jeff Rollman. Feit, a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow, said he was very pleased with the event, both with the size of the audience and its makeup.

“The audience contained those interested in Israel, those passionate about international affairs, local community members, and students from other Philadelphia campuses. One of PFI’s primary goals is to reach beyond the pro-Israel community and to influence opinion by providing accurate information.”

Feit and his colleagues seem to have achieved their goal.