Despite all, Jews do need the UN

By Simone Abel and Alexander Goldberg, July 2, 2012
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Groucho Marx once said: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." To some, the UN is exactly that sort of club, one that is increasingly hostile to Jews.

Indeed, the diplomatic protection given to UN representatives means the race-hate laws that apply to the citizens of Geneva seem not to apply to the diplomats enjoying the UN Serpentine bar's lake views, and less so in the auditorium of the UN Council for Human Rights.

It was clear that something was particularly wrong when one UN ambassador insinuated that the Jews "controlled the banks and media". Even more comical was the crazed Syrian representative shouting at the UN Human Rights Commissioner that "Israelis came from Mars". Perhaps the book is coming out any day now, working title "Israelis are from Mars, Palestinians are from Venus"?

And yet, like Groucho, we persevere with the club. Why? The UN is a members' club where the members are the world's states. It is not a Jewish concept to turn our backs on the world; we are supposed to mend it. The UN allows non-governmental organisations, including Jewish groups, to have consultative status and a chance to shape and change international law and acceptable norms.

Resolutions are often the result of horse trading

The UN process is governed by a series of instruments that directly emanate from the principles laid down by French Jewish jurist René Cassin, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These principles were a response to the atrocities of the Second World War, formulated in a world that was trying to learn the lessons of history in the hope that it could say "never again".

It must be remembered that, in the 19th century, states were sovereign above all else. They were not bound by humanitarian laws and had few obligations to individual citizens, particularly to minorities. In many countries, extreme nationalists rose to prominence suggesting that minorities should be dealt with less favourably, persecuted and ultimately disposed of. This heinous ideology eventually led to the Holocaust, but not before it had claimed other victims such as those of the Armenian genocide. The world knew and looked away.

The importance of UN scrutiny in a world of 24-hour news and social media is not to be underestimated. Universal norms alone are worth protecting. True, political considerations can trump legal norms, certain political blocs protect abusers while singling out friendless states and many UN resolutions are done through horse-trading.

Despite these things, the case for the UN is simple and compelling and it is this: without the UN then there is no global body to hold oppressive regimes to account, no mechanism to stop human-rights abusers. This scrutiny has led to recognition of the rights of Australian Aboriginals, brought global pressure to bear on Sudan and resulted in international tribunals to bring to justice those who committed crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The Jewish community has a choice on whether to take a stand on the UN, on whether it should "boycott" the organisation? Any calculation should take into account our responsibility to mend the fractures of the world and, in so doing, consider whether we are more likely to further that goal by participating in or withdrawing from this forum.

As a global community of, at most, 17 million people, would we not be more powerful if we took advantage of the opportunity that the UN presents to amplify our voice and open up a Siach, a conversation, at the UN on social, political and civil rights? When young Jews from our human-rights organisation pushed through the first recognition of group rights in cases of genocide, or took a stance on Darfuri or Roma rights, they did so in a Jewish tradition of tikkun olam.

They did not, as it says in the Bible, "stand idly by while our neighbour bleeds". Surely, it is better to campaign for change inside the UN - the only truly global body - than to turn our backs on it? Engaging in civil society and promoting and protecting the rights of others is something we have a positive duty to do. It is not a duty we should take lightly.

Simone Abel is director of RenéCassin and Alexander Goldberg is an international trustee

    Last updated: 5:27pm, July 2 2012