In the past few weeks, Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the watchdog organization UNWatch, has become the persona non grata at the recently overhauled UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. At the Council’s fourth session in late March, Neuer delivered a speech that so infuriated Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba that it was stricken from the official UN record. What could Neuer have said to provoke such censure?
Beginning his speech by invoking the legacy of the Human Rights Commission’s founders, a group of five that included Eleanor Roosevelt and Réné Cassin, Neuer asked what had become of “their noble dream.” Three minutes later he delivered the verdict: “With terrible lies and moral inversion, it is being turned into a nightmare.”
In an all-but-extinct display of candor on the banks of Lake Geneva, Neuer outlined how and why the Council has gone so wrong. Under the disingenuous guise of protecting Palestinian rights, he argued, the representatives have avoided confronting their countries’ own sins. The result? Millions of human rights violators in 191 countries have been granted almost total impunity. “The racist murderers and rapists of Darfur women tell us they care about the rights of Palestinian women; the occupiers of Tibet care about the occupied; and the butchers of Muslims in Chechnya care about Muslims,” said Neuer. “But do these self-proclaimed defenders truly care about Palestinian rights?”
In the last several months, Neuer explained, more than 130 Palestinians civilians were killed in skirmishes between Hamas and Fatah, three times the combined total that lead to special sessions of the Human Rights Council in July and November. “Meanwhile, the champions of Palestinian rights — Ahmadinejad, Assad, Khaddafi, John Dugard — said nothing.” When 3- year-old boy Salam Balousha and his two brothers were murdered by Hamas gunmen, the Council “chose silence,” said Neuer. Why? Because, Neuer asserted, despite their never-ending rhetoric about defending Palestinian rights, the members of the Council do not really care about human rights: they care about vilifying Israel.
Watching this speech via YouTube (it has been viewed at least 200,000 times), one can see the rage building within Mexican Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba. For the first time, de Alba, his arms tightly crossed, did not express the token thanks for a representative’s remarks. “I am sorry that I’m not in a position to thank you for your statement. I should mention that I will not tolerate any similar statements in the Council. The way in which members of this Council were referred to…is inadmissible.” De Alba added that any future statements made “in similar tones” would be prohibited.
For de Alba, the word “inadmissible” was not empty rhetoric. The Council keeps a de facto record— Ohchr.org—which offers full-text versions of all speeches delivered to the Council. Neuer’s speech was never posted on the site.
If the Council regularly censured speeches it considered undiplomatic, this incident might not be worthy of attention. But even the briefest glance at recent statements confirms de Alba’s pointed selectivity. At the Council’s sessions in the fall and winter of 2006, it approved a number of egregious remarks.
Cuban Ambassador Juan Antonio Fernadez Palacious, who upon receiving a report documenting human rights abuses in Cuba, said, “This libelous report does not deserve any respect or credibility. We will send it to the same place that we have sent all previous reports: the paper-recycling bin.” This earned the Council’s “thanks.”
Iranian ambassador Alireza Moayer, who penned a letter that called the Holocaust a “historical claim” and suggested that there are “serious opposing ideas over the issue” was given the Council’s tacit approval when it decided to circulate it.
Nigerian Ambassador Joseph Ayalogu’s speech on stoning as an appropriate punishment for homosexuality, rather than a human rights violation, also earned the Council’s “thanks.”
In each of these outrageous cases,the Council president formally, reliably, extended his gratitude. Why the difference in Neuer’s case? Unlike the comments above, which attack human rights (the one thing the Council is designed to defend), Neuer’s comments attacked the Council itself— unthinkable. They attacked the hypocrisy that has turned the Council into a farce.
That the UN Human Rights Council struck Neuer’s speech from the record but admitted, even thanked, speakers who brazenly called for the resignation of council representatives, spouted justifications for the killing of gays, and denied the Holocaust seems a newsworthy event in its own right.
For some, it was. The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial titled “Your UN at Work,” that compared the Council’s disregard of actual human rights violations to a squid discharging its ink. The New York Sun lauded the speech as well, calling it a “diplomatic moment to remember.” “Newspapermen have to have strong stomachs,” the Sun said, “but it’s nothing compared to what he needs to sit through these sessions.”
But it’s no surprise that Neuer’s speech drew cheers from conservative sources—they are the usual suspects. What’s distressing is the deafening silence on the part of those on the left who still claim to give a damn. It seems that issues of building a strong international community, free expression, human rights—causes that the American left has historically championed—are being ignored by left-wingers out of fear that they might be considered handmaidens of a “neoconservative” agenda. God forbid.
To be sure, the fear of being politically branded or, worse, tarnished, can be paralyzing. But such partisan fears are a lame excuse for ignoring Neuer’s censure, and more broadly, for withholding criticism about the Human Rights Council’s obsession with attacking Israel. Those on the left seem worried about the implication of criticizing the UN’s disproportionate focus on Israel. But this is a false fear. Criticism of the Council’s fixation on Israel is not equivalent to supporting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Indeed, such criticism should not be seen as doing the bidding of Israel, but as advocating action on far graver human rights violations that are currently ignored or underplayed on account of too much energy spent attacking Israel. It is for this reason that the left must speak up.
There is a lot about which the left can speak up. Between 2003 and 2007, the UN at large took 501 actions (resolutions, decisions, reports, cases, letters, and visits) on Israel and 220 on Sudan. This year alone, Israel has received 135 actions, while Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo have received 69 and 40, respectively. Last year, at the Human Rights Council, Israel was top on the list with 39 actions, the US pulled in at second with 29, while Cote D’Ivoire had 9. This year, 15 actions have been taken on Israel, while Sudan, whose government has condoned (or at least failed to stem) the murder of at least 200,000 in an ongoing genocide, has received only 9 actions.
Yet some among the left’s ranks don’t see this dramatically disproportionate focus on Israel as a problem. Because Israel is a democracy, some argue, it is rightfully held to higher standards. This argument is premised on the assumption that Israel’s status as a democracy would lead it to answer to criticism that closed societies would simply ignore. But this argument ends up mandating avoiding the worst human rights violations: should the Council ignore genocide simply because it occurs in an undemocratic state?
“The UN charter claims that it gives equal treatment to all nations large and small,” Neuer said. Its specific mission is to be impartial and objective and so “singling out Israel” constitutes, by mere definition, “an egregious breach.”
Another argument that could conceivably explain the left’s silence is a case of mistaken idealism. Perhaps those who still hold out hope that the Council will act as an effective institution hesitate to lend credence to voices refuting that hope. And yet, at its core, the silence from the left represents cynicism rather than idealism. Stories like the Neuer speech are ignored because they no longer seem interesting or new to readers. As Neuer quips: “UN condemns Israel—yawn.”
He’s right. Indeed, searches through the archives of the New York Times, The Nation, NPR, and The American Prospect about Neuer’s censure produced zero hits. Pointing out bias against Israel is passé, especially when it comes from a guy named Hillel. Presumably the left still abides by the basic calculus that genocide is worse that occupation. If so, ignoring the substance of Neuer’s message is a luxury that victims in the Congo and Cote D’Ivoire can no longer afford.