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United Nations: Litmus Test for UN Reform Efficacy - The Fair Treatment of Israel

by Eric G. Berman (July 1997)

The recent [15 July] United Nations General Assembly (GA) non-binding resolution against Israel clearly illustrates one of the World Organization's most serious weaknesses. Any measure of effective UN reform must assess whether UN fora continue to be abused to promote the interests of a small number of Member States. It is truly scandalous that Israel ought to be threatened with economic sanctions — a tool reserved for only the most serious violators of international peace and security. The fair treatment of Israel within the United Nations serves as an excellent litmus test for judging if the UN is functioning as it should.

Politically, Israel is severely mistreated at the UN. The General Assembly's infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution of 1975 still infuriates — despite its repeal in 1991. While there are instances when media coverage distorts the equitable treatment of Israel at the UN, UN Member States routinely single Israel out for unwarranted attention and criticism. The ongoing GA Emergency Session, which is only adjourned and will surely meet again in the fall, convened in May to address the Har Homa situation. Prior to this, the GA last held an Emergency Session in 1982 (on Israel's invasion of Lebanon). The genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and the "disappearance" of a hundred thousand refugees in Congo (formerly Zaire) all were not deemed sufficiently serious. Leaving aside the wisdom of Netanyahu's decision to build apartments on Har Homa, it is fair to ask if Netanyahu has caused the hysteria, or if Arab governments have used the occasion to exacerbate a tense situation. In any event, the UN's response to the situation has been inappropriate and disproportionate.

Although the General Assembly has been willing to reassess its position and show flexibility on other diplomatic fronts, a sense of inertia governs its approach toward Israel. The current GA decided to defer action on a proposed agenda item dealing with East Timor in light of the pending negotiations between Indonesia and Portugal. However, the GA issued its directive to continue investigating Israeli practices while talks on Hebron were still in progress. A similarly troubling double standard toward Israel is also the rule and not the exception at the Security Council and the Commission on Human Rights.

Member States and others must not be allowed to abuse the credibility and prestige of UN fora for merciless attacks on Israel. In light of such persistent bias, it is perhaps understandable that most Israelis and many fair-minded people do not take the UN seriously. Such a reaction is dangerous, however, for a tremendous part of humanity does take the UN seriously. To them, the UN commands respect. Palestinian Observer Nabil Ramlawi's defamation of Israel at the UN Commission on Human Rights in March was a pathetic attempt to use the "big lie" made famous by US Senator Joe McCarthy during the era of American anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s. Yet, it was effective. Ramlawi's modern day "blood libel" that Israel infected Palestinian children with the HIV virus currently stands as fact. Not one Member State aside from Israel took the floor to protest this scandalous charge, which is now part of the official record — and which must be amended.

Less sensational, but even more problematic is the fact that Member States often treat Israel as a second class citizen within the UN. They continue to exclude Israel from the unofficial but powerful regional group system that determines membership in crucial bodies such as the Security Council. Israel ought to be part of the Asian Group, but current political realities make that impossible. The obvious solution is for Israel to be invited to join the Western European and Other States Group (WEOG), but European pusillanimity has kept Israel disenfranchised. World public opinion could play a significant role in reversing certain countries' policies. Importantly, pending legislation before the US Congress would require the US State Department to report on WEOG countries' efforts — or lack thereof — to change the status quo.

One cannot remain indifferent to the UN as it is an important world forum. Those concerned about enacting meaningful reform at the UN must not ignore or casually dismiss the World Organization. It is important that the UN be made to work effectively. President Clinton has pledged that America will honor her commitment so long as the UN makes good on its commitment to reform. Budgetary reform is only part of the equation. Meaningful reform entails changing the way business is conducted. Treating Israel fairly in line with the Charter is a good way to judge if progress is being made.

Sources: UN Watch

Eric Berman was then-Executive Director of UN Watch.