The UN, human rights and the Israel question

By Shlomie Liberow, May 10, 2012

In discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reference to a UN resolution tends to charge the individual’s argument with unique powers. The UN is, invariably, an all-out, exclusive, power-pack trump card.

A conflict of such a convoluted nature, riddled with many – often missed – nuances, raises a unique set of challenges. Yet no amount of contextualising and reasoning will present an argument against a specific UN resolution. Its weight is indisputable, its respect unmatched and this is perhaps what gives many naïve individuals confidence in taking a stance on an issue – the Middle East - that they may know very little about.

After all, if the UN churns out a non-stop torrent of resolutions and heavy criticism of Israel, that leaves us with a clouded impression of an evil imperialist dictatorship masquerading as a democracy and offers people a reductionist, black and white lens through which to view the conflict.

The history and establishment of the UN Commission on Human Rights was indeed laced with noble intentions, but lamentably its commendable aims were soon overrun and its collective effect watered down by regimes such as Cuba, Libya (its 2003 chair), Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In 2005, the General Assembly established the UN Human Rights Council to replace the inept CHR and attempt to restore some measure of respect to the institution. It promised a new era of accountability with a united force dedicated to upholding basic human rights and liberty.

In the forum of student politics, the UN often dominates the discussion, so I felt the need to gain more of an insight into the HRC, to appreciate the dynamics and processes involved in its decision making. It was with that spirit that I travelled Geneva to spend four days at the UNHRC as an ambassador, on behalf of the European Union of Jewish Students, representing more than 200,000 of my peers.

I was well aware of the inherent bias employed there and admittedly had not set my expectations very high. Yet I naïvely envisaged the decision-makers employing some measure of objectivity. But I was in for a nasty surprise, for what greeted me was a complete circus of a council, staffed with disillusioned dictators, totalitarian regimes with appalling records of human rights abuse voicing laughable “concerns”, all of them engaged in complete mockery of human rights.

I sat in the main hall witnessing the absurdity of Iran criticising Ireland's record of human rights abuse of children, and saw Syria criticising the council for focusing on the murder of more than 9,000 civilians but ignoring what it claims is happening in the West Bank.

I later spent time with the Ugandan ambassador to the HRC who in an official capacity occupies a dual role as ambassador to Geneva as well. He was completely unaware of the content and subject of an item regarding Israel, but this did not stop him from airing his concerns about the perceived grip the “Jewish lobby” has on the US Congress.

The real bombshell came at the conclusion of the meeting, when he asked, in all seriousness: “Are there any Christians in Israel?”

A week later Uganda was one of the countries lending support to the five condemnations directed at Israel. At the French embassy I was told by the press attaché that he could not elaborate on antisemitism in France since he had not familiarised himself with the relevant reports and was not Jewish.

The general incompetence displayed was astonishing. Has the council fulfilled its duty of care? What role should such a body play in global politics? Is it high time we stop granting unwarranted legitimacy to a body that has effectively become another tool in the grand arsenal available to despotic regimes?

Shlomie Liberow is the president of Goldsmiths University JSoc and a student fellow with StandWithUs UK.

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Last updated: 5:30pm, May 10 2012