GENEVA – After the mothers of the kidnapped teens appeared this week before the United Nations in Geneva, people have rightly asked what if any concrete impact their appeal could have, and what must be the next steps on the international and UN stage.
As the world’s highest repository of international legitimacy, it is vital, first, for all key UN bodies and officials to make clear that the kidnapping of the boys – Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel – is morally wrong. Knowing the world is with you, or against you, can make a difference.
Moreover, both the UN and the international community have intimate ties with the Palestinians, providing them with massive financial and political support. They need to use the numerous pressure points at their disposal to demand Palestinian information and action that may in any way lead to finding the boys.
Sadly, it has often seemed over the past two weeks that much of UN and world opinion is indifferent.
While the abductions dominated the news in Israel, their plight has not received great attention in European and other newspapers. If anything, it is Israel’s attempts to find and rescue the boys that have received attention, nearly all of it critical.
So, too, the UN — with the notable exception of Ban Ki-moon’s initial condemnation, acknowledged by Rachel Fraenkel in her remarks on Tuesday before the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council – has also failed to speak out, let alone take action.
When High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spoke before the UNHRC on June 10 to open its current three-week session, she sharply criticized Israel for “excessive use of force,” while commending the Palestinians for acceding to international treaties.
Yet when it came time for Pillay to actually hold the Palestinians accountable to their newly undertaken human rights obligations, the UN rights chief has been silent. She has declined to condemn the Palestinian Authority’s media for celebrating the abductions, or to condemn Hamas – PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s partner in the new Palestinian unity government — for the group’s latest praise of the kidnappings.
To be sure, Pillay’s office did say something. In a June 20 statement by her spokesperson that was dedicated to condemning Israel’s actions in the territories, passing concern was expressed for the teenagers who, note the language, “went missing.” The UN rights office deliberately refused to say the boys were abducted by terrorists, or to make any condemnation.
For one day this week, however, things seemed different.
When Fraenkel began to speak, delivering her heartfelt appeal before the UN and before the world – asking everyone to do whatever they can to help bring the three boys back home – I heard the normally cacophonous UNHRC plenary turn silent.
The UN delegates, customarily oblivious to the rote and rapidly delivered two-minute speeches of non-governmental organizations, suddenly turned their heads around to watch and listen.
The compelling human impact of her words, and of the three mothers’ courageous and graceful appearance in Geneva, could not easily be ignored.
Less than half an hour later, US Ambassador Keith Harper took the floor and spoke out for the three boys.
There are no illusions that support will come from the council itself, whose entrenched anti-Israel line is dictated by its dominant Arab and Islamic blocs, and which recently added Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Cuba to its already expansive roster of non-democratic members.
But the global platform did provide an opportunity for Fraenkel, Bat Galim Shaer and Iris Yifrah to capture the world’s attention.
The three mothers’ UN appeal, followed by a press conference and media interviews, was reported in articles and broadcasts by the BBC, Agence France-Presse, Deutsche Presse- Agentur, AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times – which embedded video of the speech on its website – and by other Swiss, European and international media.
Here in Switzerland, people were gratified to finally see due attention to the kidnapped boys in the local newspapers and national media – and, more generally, to see coverage of Israeli victims for a change. The norm is to see only reports of alleged Israeli violations against Palestinians.
Importantly, the mothers met personally with top international officials, thereby placing the boys, in the most human and direct way, on the world agenda.
They met with UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri. I understand she was moved by the mothers’ plight, and one hopes she conveyed that sentiment to her boss.
The test now is to see whether Pillay will forthrightly and unequivocally condemn the abductions, and to use all the means at the disposal of her office, which has extensive ties to both the West Bank and Gaza, to press for the boys’ safe return.
We at UN Watch will be demanding no less. (An online petition is now on our website, www.
unwatch.org) Equally, the UN rights system has numerous special rapporteurs who deal with all aspects of human rights, including enforced disappearances. UN Watch will be submitting an urgent appeal for these investigators to speak out and demand information concerning the three kidnapped teens.
The mothers also met with Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, an organization that, to its credit, issued a prompt statement unequivocally declaring the abductions as a violation of the laws of war.
The ICRC must continue to use its behind-the-scenes mechanisms to press the Palestinians for information and action that could lead to finding the hostages.
At a time when the UN Security Council is deadlocked – Jordan, acting for the Arab states, blocked a recently-attempted presidential statement that would have condemned the kidnappings – other independent UN and international officials can and must speak out.
The mothers spoke of the strength they have received from Jews and gentiles worldwide who have shown solidarity in so many ways.
This was much in evidence this week as Geneva Jewish community members rallied immediately to embrace and help the mothers during their UN visit, providing them with homecooked kosher meals and emotional support.
When Fraenkel joined the Geneva Chabad center’s urgently- called service to pray for the boys’ return, an overflowing crowd arrived on barely 24-hours notice. A piercing call of the shofar captured the congregation’s entreaties to on high. Asked to say a few words, Fraenkel spoke, articulately and inspiringly, of the great unity and solidarity that emerged in Israel and worldwide for the boys’ safe return.
Moved and inspired by the mothers’ visit, we now need to keep pressing the UN and the international community to do whatever it can to help bring the boys back home.
Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, the Geneva-based human rights organization that organized the three mothers’ visit this week to the UN.