Dec 18, 2008 | Adam Frey
By Adam Frey
Continuing its yearly tradition, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) debated and voted on a cavalcade of recycled anti-Israel resolutions during its November sessions. This annual rehashing of the same anti-Israel ritual presents an opportunity to review Australia’s voting record on the issues and assess the progress in combating the anti-Israel bureaucracy entrenched at the UNGA and UN generally.
This article also reviews recent developments in the work of the UN Human Rights Council, to assess whether the successor body to the much-maligned Human Rights Commission has been an improvement or simply more of the same.
Resolutions and entrenched bureaucracy
The UNGA and its related committees debated and approved approximately 20 one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions. Importantly, by singling out and seeking to demonise Israel as the sole obstacle to Middle East peace, these resolutions contribute nothing to a lasting resolution of the conflict. In fact, they actually hinder the prospects for peace by encouraging Palestinian intransigence and endorsing the Palestinians’ maximalist demands. The resolutions also undermine both the UN’s credibility as a mediator and the lofty principles on which the organisation was founded.
Australia’s votes on these resolutions this year remained mostly consistent with its mixed voting record under the previous government and last year under the newly-elected Rudd Government. Disappointingly, however, Australia reversed itself to vote in favour of two blatantly one-sided resolutions on which it had previously abstained or voted against.
The “Yes” Votes
The first of these resolutions, on which Australia had previously abstained, calls for the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the resolution ignores strong legal arguments as to why the Convention does not actually apply, as well as the fact that Israel already applies the Convention’s humanitarian provisions voluntarily. The resolution also omits any reference to Palestinian violence and violations of international law.
The second resolution, which Australia had previously voted against, condemns all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Pointing to the 2003 “Road Map” agreement, the resolution calls for a complete freeze of settlement activity by Israel but does not highlight any Palestinian obligations, including the parallel commitment to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. It praises Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yet fails to mention the consequences thereof: Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli towns and civilians. Indeed, there is no specific mention of Palestinian violence as a problem, although Israeli settlers are specifically singled out twice for condemnation for violence.
Australian government officials argued that the votes were animated by Australia’s support for a two-state resolution to the conflict. However, it is clear from the one-sided and biased nature of these resolutions that they undermine that worthy goal.
By adopting wholesale the Palestinian narrative of the conflict and placing all the blame on Israel, these resolutions do not contribute to the climate of compromise that will be necessary for a lasting peace. Moreover, the resolutions often ignore actual improvements in the situation on the ground, preferring instead to focus on polemics and rhetoric.
The rationale expressed for one of Australia’s “no” votes is more persuasive, and applicable to all the resolutions in question:
… the resolution demonstrates a one-sided focus by criticising Israel and failing to take into account Israel’s legitimate security concerns or reflecting adequately the responsibility of Palestinians to end attacks against Israel… The one-sided focus of this resolution will not contribute constructively to the goal of a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict, and Australia cannot therefore support this resolution.
Australia also maintained its previous voting record in favour of four similarly one-sided resolutions aimed at assistance for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza and/or Palestinian refugees. Although these resolutions seem ostensibly humanitarian in nature, their one-sided approach actually perpetuates rather than ameliorates the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
For example, one of these resolutions praises the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and calls for even greater assistance to the agency by UN member states. Yet UNRWA is very much part of the problem, not the solution, because it relegates Palestinians to living in misery while promoting a legally unprecedented “right of return” for 1948 refugees and all their descendants to pre-1967 Israel, which is incompatible with a true two-state resolution.
Still “No” on the anti-Israel bureaucracy
Fortunately, the Australian Government maintained its principled voting stance against the four pillars of the anti-Israel bureaucracy at the UN: (1) the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories (“the Special Committee”); (2) the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; (3) the Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat; and (4) the Special Information Program on the Question of Palestine of the Department of Public Information of the Secretariat.
The Special Committee produces a yearly report which, as the Committee’s name suggests, prejudges all Israeli acts of self-defence – such as roadblocks, checkpoints and the security fence – as violations of Palestinian rights. At the same time, it completely ignores the Palestinian violence that necessitates these measures in the first place.
The Division of Palestinian Rights, created in 1977, is one of seven divisions within the UN Secretariat’s Department of Political Affairs. The other six are divided between entire regions of the world and Security Council Affairs. Whereas Palestinians have a division devoted solely to their cause, the Americas and Europe split one division and Asia and the Pacific split another. The Division also supports the work of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people.
That committee was created in 1975. Each year it organises the “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People”. According to the Committee’s website, the event gathers UN officials and others to mark the fact that “the question of Palestine remain[s] unresolved”. Apparently immune to the irony, the event is held on the anniversary of the UNGA’s adoption of the Partition Plan in 1947. That plan would have granted the Palestinians a state – thereby resolving the “question” 60 years ago – had the Palestinians and Arab states not rejected it.
Emblematic of the Committee’s openly biased work, in 2005 this UN-organised event displayed a map of the region that omitted Israel, a UN member state. Speaking to this year’s event, UNGA President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua called Israel an apartheid state. He also referred to Palestinians “being crucified” – a clear reference to the antisemitic claim that Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death. And he called for boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
Brockmann then followed that performance a month later by attempting to use his power as UNGA president to apparently practise what he preached. He tried to prevent Israel – which was acting in its capacity as the rotating chair of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) – from addressing a plenary session of the Assembly celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
When WEOG governments objected to WEOG being silenced, Brockmann instead politicised the commemoration by adding two additional speakers: One from the Arab states (Egypt) and one from the “Non-aligned Movement” (Cuba), which could be guaranteed to denounce Israel. Not surprisingly, Egypt’s UN ambassador singled out Israel for condemnation while Cuba’s railed against “foreign occupation” and “colonial and alien domination”. By contrast, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev focused on the principles and aspirations of the Declaration.
The Special Information Program on the Question of Palestine is another example of a subdivision within the Secretariat devoted solely to the Palestinian cause. The program is intended to work with media and other organisations to “heighten awareness of and support for the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.” Not surprisingly, the information it helps disseminate is more often than not one-sided and imbalanced, and therefore does not effectively contribute to a lasting resolution of the conflict.
These four UN bodies are particularly pernicious because they are pseudo-permanent fixtures that push a maximalist Palestinian narrative of the conflict; elevate the conflict beyond all proportion to other global conflicts or crises; and perpetuate a culture of victimhood among Palestinians while demonising Israel. They also use their wide reach to inject anti-Israel resolutions into every facet of UN forums and events, even those wholly unrelated to the conflict.
However, they need not be permanent. The votes reauthorising their work are considered budgetary in nature, thus requiring a two-thirds majority to pass. They currently do so only because of a high number of abstentions by European states and others that, if partly converted to “no” votes would defeat the resolutions. Unfortunately, 2008 saw backsliding on this issue as well, with slightly more states abstaining than did last year.
Australia also voted against a number of other resolutions, including one harkening back to Israel’s conduct during the 2006 war against Hezbollah and another that would grant the Palestinians “permanent sovereignty” over the natural resources in the Palestinian territories and east Jerusalem.
Finally, Australia abstained on a number of resolutions ranging in topics from the regional risk of nuclear proliferation (singling out Israel while ignoring Iran); the status of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; and self-determination for the Palestinian people (which ignores the Jewish people’s right to the same).
Human Rights Council
The anti-Israel bias within the UN’s human rights organs, particularly the Human Rights Council (“the Council”), has been just as prevalent. The bias is evident in a near-single-minded focus on Israel, to the neglect of true human rights violators, and in the preparations for the Durban Review Conference (“Durban II”).
The Council was created in March 2006 to replace the now-defunct Human Rights Commission, which had become too much of a mockery for even the UN. Unfortunately, those countries like Australia that were sceptical at the time that the mostly cosmetic changes to the Council would lead to substantive improvements have been proven correct.
Council membership still includes the “worst of the worst”, such as China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The Council also has continued the Commission’s obsessive focus on Israel, with a full 80 percent of its country-specific censures directed at Israel. Only two other countries have been singled out by the Council: North Korea (once) and Burma (four times). Not even Sudan has come under specific criticism for its conduct in Darfur.
Worse, the Council only renewed the mandate for Sudan’s human rights monitor until March 2009 – at which point it could eliminate the position altogether. It already has eliminated the monitors for Belarus, Cuba, Liberia and Congo – all widely acknowledged as the scenes of major human rights violations. Ironically, the one place where eliminating the monitor might lead to an improvement in the Council’s work is actually in the Palestinian territories, where the Council’s “expert on Palestine”, Richard Falk, is much too biased against Israel to be effective. Before his appointment, he had already claimed it was proper to “associate” Israel’s policies with “the criminalised Nazi record of collective atrocity.” Last month, he slammed Israel for committing what he deemed crimes against humanity for its policies toward Gaza and compared Israel to apartheid South Africa.
The Council recently completed its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Israel. The UPR was supposed to be one of the more equalising reforms, submitting every UN member state to a “peer review”. In practice, Israel’s review provided a platform for such human rights luminaries as Iran, Cuba, China, Sudan, Egypt and a host of other Arab countries to condemn Israel.
The Council is also responsible for planning Durban II, the follow-on to the 2001 Durban “anti-racism” conference that turned into an anti-Western, antisemitic and anti-Israel hate-fest. All indications are that Durban II, scheduled for April 2009, will be as bad as, if not worse than, its namesake.
Remarkably, Libya was chosen as the chair of the planning committee, with Iran, Cuba and Pakistan working closely at its side. Libya is also fronting efforts to include another NGO (non-governmental organisation) forum, which is where most of the worst abuses from the 2001 conference occurred.
In another clear sign of where Durban II is heading, the draft outcome declaration reprises the vitriolic language of the 2001 Teheran Declaration, including labelling Israel as a “racist”, “apartheid state” committing “genocide”. Meanwhile, preparatory sessions have been repeatedly scheduled on Jewish religious holidays, stifling participation by – and opposition from – Israel and Jewish NGOs. For example, the session at which the language above was adopted occurred on Oct. 6-17, 2008, with the actual document being submitted by the Asia group (which includes Iran and the Arab states) on Oct. 8. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, fell on Oct. 9 last year.
In another disconcerting development, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is promoting language that would criminalise any criticism of Islam under the guise of preventing “Islamaphobia” and the general “defamation of religions”. This effort to import Islamic anti-blasphemy laws into “international norms” undermines the principles of freedom of speech and expression as well as Western anti-terror measures.
Last January, Canada became the first country to announce it would boycott the conference, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper explaining: “We will not be party to an antisemitic and anti-Western hate fest dressed up as antiracism.” Unsurprisingly, Israel also announced that it will not attend.
France, Denmark and several other European countries have also expressed concern, and may still decide not to attend. So too might the United States, although the Bush Administration has said that it will leave the decision up to the incoming Obama Administration.
For its part, Australia was in a solid minority of 40 countries that courageously opposed funding for the conference last December. Although Australia valiantly stayed at the 2001 conference and was partially successful in stemming its worst excesses, the government will soon have to evaluate whether the same will even be possible in April. Currently, a withdrawal looks to be the most appropriate course of action.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry has passed a resolution calling for Australia not to attend the conference unless it can ensure that the final documents do not: single out or demonise any particular state; introduce the policy of opposing defamation of religion; delete condemnation of antisemitism; remove calls for Holocaust commemoration; or construct a hierarchy of racisms.
Given the process to date, it would take a dramatic change for Australia or any other principled country to be able to participate.