Interview: The watchman

Why the need for UN Watch? Says executive director Hillel Neuer, ‘Human rights in postwar Europe has become a new religion for many and if the Human Rights Council is the temple, Israel is the devil’

Cuba dissidents protest 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Cuba dissidents protest 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
If the protesters around the Arab world and Iran are wondering where the eyes of the world have been focused over the past decades, says Hillel Neuer, they might do well look to Geneva, the seat of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The HRC, explains Neuer, is obsessed with Israel. Some 70 percent of its resolutions are directed against the Jewish state, he says, while every session has a special agenda on Israel and that diverts the gaze from exactly those countries where it should be focused.
In fact, listening to Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an NGO that monitors the UN and in particular its human rights mechanisms, one gets an impression of a spectator at a theater of the absurd, where logic has given way to the irrational, where the protagonist is consumed with one overwhelming preoccupation and where reality has been turned on its head.
UN Watch was founded in 1983 by Morris B. Abram, a civil rights lawyer who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and went on to become the US permanent representative to the UN in Geneva.
“He had the idea of founding a body to monitor the UN according to its principles and that’s UN Watch,” says Neuer.
“Our belief is that the UN was founded with noble goals and that the UN Charter is a liberal document expressing liberal values, expressing the liberal internationalism of that day.
But that for a variety of reasons, things have become politicized and the original mandate of the UN to put an end to the scourge of war and to promote human rights has been hijacked by countries that have a very different agenda to the one the UN founders had.”
The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 as a successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights with a mandate for reform, but it has failed miserably in that mission, says Neuer, a 40-year-old Montreal native who practiced civil rights litigation in New York prior to taking up the post at UN Watch seven years ago.
“We were promised reform, we got regression,” he exclaims when asked to grade the HRC’s first five years of operation.
“The high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, at the launch of the HRC called it ‘the dawn of a new era.’ Let me tell you about the dawn of a new era. The old commission, which [former UN secretary-general] Kofi Annan described as selective and politicized and as casting a shadow on the reputation of the UN as a whole, would spend 50 percent of its resolutions attacking Israel. At the new, improved, HRC the number is now 70 percent.
“There have in the past five years been some 50 resolutions that condemn countries, of those 35 have been on Israel.
Only a handful of others have ever been addressed in any critical fashion.”
The worst offenders are let off the hook, complains Neuer.
“The world’s worst abusers have escaped. Nothing on China, nothing on Zimbabwe, on Cuba, Libya, Belarus. Even worse, the old commission had a monitor on the human rights situation in Cuba that was eliminated by the HRC. There was a monitor on the situation in Belarus, where we had widespread repression just a couple of months ago; they eliminated the expert on Belarus. They eliminated the expert on Congo shortly after he reported the possibility of mass atrocities, and sure enough we have seen mass atrocities since then. So the record of the council since then is one of dismal failure. It’s a deep disappointment.”
Neither does Neuer expect change. “In 2011 we are having a review; the council is required to review its work after five years. But the discussions in Geneva are a sham, there are not going to be any changes. The worst regimes are in control, and they have indicated very clearly that they don’t want any changes to the way this works.”
THE COUNCIL’S obsession with Israel makes Neuer fume.
He points to the special agenda item on Israel. “Built into every session is a special agenda on Israel,” he explains.
“Before any debate, before any resolution is introduced, every session has to have one day against Israel and one day for the rest of the world.”
It is a situation that he describes as “completely absurd” and one that is subject to the most “bizarre justifications” by champions of human rights like Pakistan. “What’s so disappointing, though,” says Neuer, “is that even though Kofi Annan condemned this, even though [Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon has condemned it, even though the US, Canada and the European countries have said this is clearly unjust and selective, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is defending it vigorously. She says that just like South Africa had a special agenda when there was apartheid, then so long as there is occupation, which for the UN includes the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, then there should be a special agenda on Israel.”
Not that Neuer believes Israel is immune from criticism.
“We do not believe Israel is perfect. On the contrary: Israel is flawed like every other democracy. Human rights violations do occur and Israel must be held accountable. We only ask that it be treated no differently than any other country and that this pathological obsession not be used as an excuse by dictators to shield their own abuses.”
To those who would charge that UN Watch is no more than an Israel advocacy group, Neuer replies. “We are a human rights NGO. The issue of obsession with Israel has always been a significant issue for us, we believe it’s a human rights issue. Anyone who cares about human rights victims, whether they are in Zimbabwe, Cuba, Egypt or China, would want the council to be acting in an appropriate manner and that means treat Israel as it ought to be treated, but 70% of all resolutions, 60% of all emergency sessions, the special agenda item. Why? it makes no sense.
“If people care about human rights as we do, as Eleanor Roosevelt did, as René Cassin did, they ought to be concerned about the pathological obsession with Israel which eats up the human rights agenda. It’s no mistake that the founder of the human rights commission, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a strong supporter of Israel. René Cassin, the chief author of the universal declaration, was a great supporter of Israel. When he saw what was happening at the UN after the Six Day War – he was in his late 80s – he spoke out because he was a human rights activist and he cared about his ownmechanism that he had created.
“Regrettably today there are few and fewer voices like that and it’s true that Israel has become a pariah, but I hope that human rights activists will come back to their roots where calling for equal treatment of Israel is part of the human rights agenda.”
NEUER TURNS the conversation to current affairs, the protests engulfing the Arab world, saying that the preoccupation of the UN’s human rights mechanisms with Israel and the cynical deals cut on the HRC have enabled human rights abusers to turn the spotlight elsewhere.
“If Egyptian youths are asking why did the world neglect us for so long – 80 million people suffering terrible oppression for so long, clearly prisoners of the regime, and we never heard about it at the UN.
Why? Well part of the answer to that is we never had time because they were allowing the Mubarak regime to play the prosecutor instead of the defendant. Egypt was acting as a human rights defender by being the sponsor of most of the resolutions that get adopted attacking Israel.
There was simply no time for Egypt, no time for Libya, no time for Tunisia. The amount of time spent demonizing Israel is in a zero-sum game directly taken away from the limited time and diplomatic resources that could have been focused on countries that really deserve that gaze.”
It is the very institutions that are mandated to address human rights issues that gave Egypt and other regimes a “free pass” to behave as they did, continues Neuer.
“That’s wrong and that is part of the reason why they were able to survive this long without any pressure. That is why we came to this situation [in Egypt] where we are faced with either an oppressive regime or the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an anti-Semitic organization that has a violent agenda, and the civil society space in between was all stamped out.”
Egypt was never addressed in an HRC resolution, says Neuer; on the contrary.
“Egypt was the sponsor of so many resolutions on Israel and defamation of religion that one would think Egypt is a hero of human rights. The fact that so many countries allowed that to happen and were silent is something that Egyptian freedom fighters should consider when they ask themselves how is it their situation was ignored for so long.”
Even now, he notes, as protesters are dying in scores in Libya, by press time no emergency session of the council had been called. UN Watch together with an international coalition of 35 NGOs has called on world powers to convene the HRC and the General Assembly on the killings.
“The muted response of the US and the EU to the Libyan atrocities is not only a let-down to the many Libyans risking their lives for freedom, but a shirking of their obligations, as members of the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, to protect peace and human rights and to prevent war crimes,” Neuer said in a statement issued after this interview.
SO HOW is it that the HRC has abandoned its obligations and become such a blatant anti-Israel platform? “When you talk about the Israel aspect, there are Islamic states that have a very fierce campaign at the UN to delegitimize Israel that didn’t begin yesterday,” replies Neuer. “It began with the Zionism-equalsracism resolution in 1975. The Islamic states only represent about a third of the council, but what you have is an automatic majority. This automatic majority is so obedient that if an Arab state were to introduce a resolution saying the earth is flat, it would be adopted by a majority of 30 out of 47 just because of who introduced it.”
Of course, anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel aren’t the only factors at play.
There is also cynicism and horse trading.
“Who supports the Islamic states?” asks Neuer. “You have the dictatorships; you have China, Russia, Cuba. But also non-dictatorships, and that is most hurtful to see, countries like India, South Africa, Brazil, which shouldn’t be voting with the dictators.
Unfortunately for reasons like oil and vote trading they do... There has never been a resolution on the slaughter of Muslim Uighurs in the western province of China; there has not been a resolution at the HRC on the brutality against Muslim Chechens. Why are the Islamic states silent on that? Because they have a deal. Russia and China vote with them at the UN, and they never put the spotlight on their own abuses. So it’s a very cynical game and there are countries which in the corridors and otherwise have very significant relations with Israel but at the UN will vote with the Islamic states.”
Israel, says Neuer, has little choice but to put up with this situation. “Its international relations are complex. Israel would ideally like to have both robust bilateral relations, economic and otherwise, with China and India, and to have them vote in a fair manner at the UN. But regrettably, what’s on offer is only one of them and it’ll take what’s on offer.”
Neuer also dismisses the widely held perception that a flawed Israeli strategy in dealing with delegitimization is to blame for the situation. “There are very powerful forces arrayed against Israel and I think many people make a very big mistake when they talk about Israel’s public relations as being at fault for this situation. There is a lot which needs to be improved in Israel’s PR and public diplomacy, but that is not the cause of demonization on the world stage. Many of them are realpolitik and others are a new form of anti-Semitism.”
I ask Neuer whether he feels the anti- Israel reports of the HRC and other UN human rights mechanisms create a vicious circle of negative opinion.
“Absolutely,” replies Neuer. “Human rights in postwar Europe has become a new religion for many, and the HRC is the temple of this new religion If the HRC is the temple, Israel is the devil or the Antichrist.”
Not all is lost though, says Neuer. Even in such adverse circumstances there is much that can be accomplished.
“For the democracies, there is a lot they can do,” he says. “We have tried to remind them that they are not just the minority, they are the opposition. There is an attempt to twist the fundamental principles of human rights. Democracies should be fighting this, and even though they are the minority, there is a lot an opposition can do, like in a parliament. For us, the power of the Human Rights Council is not the power of the sword; that’s in New York at the Security Council. It’s not the power of the purse; that’s the General Assembly which administers the budget. It’s the power of shame, and that’s a very significant power.
“They have the power to turn the international spotlight on the world’s worst abuses that would otherwise go hidden from view. In countries like China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, where there is no freedom of press, no free elections, an international body really could make a difference and the dissidents who are in prison there really want that international attention.”
Neuer believes the democracies should, whatever the outcome, put forward resolutions and trigger special sessions to put the spotlight on countries abusing human rights.
“The democracies,” he says, “even if they can’t get a majority for every resolution, can trigger a special session and that would put the spotlight [on countries abusing human rights]. Whatever the outcome would be they can introduce resolutions even if they wouldn’t get passed. Let the bad guys show who they are and vote against resolutions for human rights victims in Syria; let them vote no and put their money where their mouth is.”
But, he adds, standing up and speaking out is something that the democracies with few exceptions are not willing to do.
“Under existing rules, you only need 16 out of 47 member nations to trigger an emergency session, so we could have an emergency session today on Iran’s repression of demonstrations. We have 16 countries that are democracies. We could get 16 countries, but they are politically weak; these countries have not been willing to stand up to the plate. So we don’t need to make changes to the rules, the rules exist now.”
The only ones who seem willing to do something are the Americans, says Neuer, before adding that even Washington is not doing enough. “I testified before the US Congress just a few weeks ago and I urged the US government to take the initiative to introduce these resolutions. Even if they fail, the amount of diplomatic energy that gets focused on an introduced resolution is significant. You can achieve the effect even if you don’t have the majority.”
He lists several accomplishments of UN Watch, including the Geneva Summit on Human Rights, an assembly of dissidents, rights victims, activists and diplomats, which it is organizing for the third year together with a coalition of rights organizations, and bringing Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya on trumped up charges of conspiring to infect children with HIV to testify before the Human Rights Council to “expose the inanity of having Libya as a member.”
Neuer also notes UN Watch’s efforts to avoid a repetition of the anti-Israel hate fest that marred the original Durban Conference.
“UN Watch is widely credited with having led the efforts to avoid the ugly scenes of Durban I, when Durban II took place in Geneva in 2009. In Durban II, we did not see the same scenes. Yes, we had [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad there, but on the streets it was a completely different scene. The supporters of human rights owned the streets, and we had a real human rights conference.”
Pride of place though seems to go to to condemnation of the HRC’s special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, whom he calls “delusional.”
Among other things, notes Neuer, Falk has suggested a US coverup of 9/11 and urged further investigation. “It’s part of his political agenda. Whenever he sees Islamist terrorists, he has always found ways to rationalize them. He defended Khomeini in 1979 and said it would be a great thing for democracy. The idea that terrorists committed 9/11 acting in the name of Islam is something that he cannot accept.
“We got him condemned. For the first time ever, the UN secretary-general condemned a human rights expert in a statement before the entire council that was covered around the world. He [Falk] is now outraged, he says his reputation was damaged. It is not our purpose to personally insult or damage someone’s reputation, but it was our purpose, and this was the effect here, to puncture the false halo that apologists for terrorists have when they get UN positions. I think his halo has been punctured.”