Editorial: UN Ideals vs. Realities
Nov 24, 2008 | Colin Rubenstein
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is seeking for Australia one of the 10 non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council in 2013. While a laudable goal, the UN system is too often dysfunctional for temporary Security Council membership to be an end in and of itself. Instead, reforming the UN and its institutions should be the animating factor underlying Australia’s campaign and, if successful, its tenure.
Some of the underlying dysfunctionality of the UN was on display last month, as the General Assembly turned its attention to its annual consideration of approximately 20 blatantly one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions. The resolutions run the gamut, from Israeli settlements and support for Palestinian refugees, to the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to the conflict and the risks of nuclear proliferation.
What they all have in common is an unrelenting focus on supposed and presumed Israeli wrongdoing while simultaneously completely ignoring Palestinian misdeeds and obligations.
Last year, the Rudd Government voted against or abstained on a number of these resolutions, continuing the courageous and principled voting pattern set by the Howard Government.
In early November, however, the government partially switched tack and (at press time) voted in favour of two resolutions on which Australia had previously voted “no” or abstained. The government has argued it only supported resolutions it believed would help advance a two state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yet despite the best intentions, the truth is that none of these resolutions contributes to that goal. Instead, by demonising Israel and encouraging Palestinian intransigence, these one-sided resolutions actually hinder an effective peace process.
Although none of the resolutions warrant support, among the worst are those relating to the four pillars of the pro-Palestinian bureaucracy at the UN: The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; the Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat; the Special Information Program on the Question of Palestine; and the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.
Together, these bodies have elevated the Palestinian cause and victimhood to singular heights at the UN. For example they place “Palestinian Rights” on a par organisationally with entire regions of the world, and anti-Israel resolutions are routinely inserted into virtually all UN business, be it health, the environment, women’s rights and so on. The overall impact has been to profoundly corrupt and warp the UN’s standing and credibility.
Fortunately, the possibility of unravelling these bodies also represents an opportunity for the Rudd Government to demonstrate leadership on, and commitment, to UN reform. Considered budgetary matters under UN rules, the resolutions reauthorising these bodies require a two-thirds majority to succeed – which they currently achieve thanks only to a large number of countries abstaining.
Australia has voted against these resolutions for the last five years. By continuing to do so (and Australia has already this year voted against the Special Committee) and encouraging EU, Western and Pacific states that currently abstain to do the same, Australia can eventually help effect positive change at the UN.
It is certainly needed. The mockery that became the Human Rights Commission, where the worst human rights abusers used their membership on the Commission to shield themselves and their fellow travellers from scrutiny or criticism, forced the UN to scrap the Commission and replace it with the Human Rights Council.
However, states with poor human rights records, such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia, remain on the Council. It has also continued the Commission’s obsession with demonising and singling out Israel – with 20 resolutions in two years, constituting 80 percent of the Council’s country censures – while all but ignoring the genocide being committed in Darfur and withdrawing monitors from other repressive regimes.
The Council is also overseeing the 2009 Durban Review Conference (see pp. 20-22). This looks like a repeat performance of the 2001 Durban conference – which degenerated into an anti-Western, anti-Israel and antisemitic debacle rather than combating racism. Libya chairs the planning committee and Iran sits on its executive committee. Preparatory meetings are held on Jewish holidays to stifle Jewish participation. The draft declaration has revived some of the worst language from 2001, including accusing Israel of genocide and crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, efforts to subjugate freedom of speech to the supposed spectre of “Islamophobia” are being enshrined in the program documents.
Both Canada and Israel have already announced they won’t attend, and other Western states are considering following suit. In 2001, Australia fought valiantly and partly successfully to prevent the worst abuses. However, the government is fast approaching the point where it must decide if it’s possible to do the same this time around, or whether the conference has become irredeemable, as now seems likely. In the latter case, Australia’s withdrawal should ideally be coordinated with those of other like-minded liberal democracies.
Even the Security Council, the most consequential UN organ, has not lived up to its lofty intentions. The Council has failed repeatedly to prevent or bring an end to armed conflicts, or to protect vulnerable populations in Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur, the Congo, and elsewhere.
The Council has also proven ineffectual in enforcing economic sanctions. We saw this in Iraq, with the Oil-for-Food fiasco. And we are dangerously close to seeing a similar failure of enforcement today with Iran, which continues to defy Security Council resolutions – already weakened to win consensus – with near impunity.
If Australia’s campaign proves successful, the government should use its increased UN presence to promote the reforms urgently required to restore the UN’s tattered credibility. Only then can the UN truly begin to live up to the aspirations for which it was founded.