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Observers Brace for More at Israel-bashing U.N. Meeting

March 18, 2005
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Springtime in Europe feels less than carefree for Jewish observers at the annual U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The six-week session traditionally devotes more resolutions to Israel than any other country, condemning the Jewish state year after year.

Events had suggested that this meeting, which began Monday, might be different. But as its opening day grew closer, pro-Israel observers began to worry that this year would resemble years past.

The progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians since the election of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by conciliatory gestures from both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, seemed as if it might affect the meeting’s tone.

And this is first commission under the watch of Louise Arbour, a former member of Canada’s Supreme Court, who recently told Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, that she was hoping for more balance on Israel.

Jews also have a serious ally in former U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, the new U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Commission. Boschwitz is Jewish, his family immigrated to America in the 1930s to flee Nazi persecution in Germany and he is a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Finally, in an internal report on widespread U.N. reform, the United Nation blasted the commission.

The commission’s capacity to perform its tasks “has been undermined by eroding credibility and professionalism. Standard-setting to reinforce human rights cannot be performed by States that lack a demonstrated commitment to their promotion and protection. We are concerned that in recent years States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others. The Commission cannot be credible if it is seen to be maintaining double standards.”

The report also defined terrorism in terms that pleased Jewish leaders, as any action “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”

Yet despite these favorable signs for Israel, Jewish officials don’t expect much to change this year.

“The secretary-general has taken significant steps, but they’re just steps. It’s up to the member-states to take greater responsibility,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights at the American Jewish Committee.

And that movement has yet to take shape.

“There was some hope that the Palestinians would moderate given the enormous developments on the ground, but anyone who had these hopes was naive. After Oslo, the U.N. didn’t change one iota,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch in Geneva.”The U.N. is on autopilot. It doesn’t reflect what is happening on the ground.” Instead, “the campaign to delegitimize Israel continues unabated.”

In fact, according to Amy Goldstein, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International, “Whenever anything positive happens in the region, the rhetoric in the United Nations gets worse.”

Meanwhile, continued efforts to consolidate about five anti-Israel resolutions relating to Palestinian self-determination and Israeli occupation into one balanced resolution on the Middle East remain unlikely.

Efforts for reform also will take time to bear fruit. And not all of the recommendations are considered salutory: A suggestion for universal membership is opposed by many human rights groups that say membership should be limited to countries that prove their human rights bona fides.

More attention may be focused on the United States this session because of its occupation of Iraq and questions surrounding its treatment of prisoners. That’s unlikely to shift attention away from Israel, though, because member states often link the two countries together. In any case, criticism of the United States indirectly hurts Israel because of the countries’ deep alliance.

Some of the key moments Jewish officials will be watching:

A resolution calling on the government of Sudan, a member of the commission, to stop the killings perpetrated by the janjaweed, a government-backed militia.

Jewish groups are supporting this resolution. B’nai Brith will hold a March 21 panel discussion on the Sudan situation called “Have the Holocaust’s Lessons Been Lost?”

Resolutions that include condemnation of anti-Semitism along with Christianophobia and Islamophobia.

Last year, such condemnations were delivered in three separate resolutions.

This year, condemnations of anti-Semitism may come in two resolutions blasting religious intolerance and racism.

A group of Quakers and Lutherans have called on the commission to remove any reference to a specific religion, however, because they claim it creates a hierarchy of religion. Dutch officials, who are introducing the religious intolerance resolution, are inclined to remove the references, according to Goldstein.

Goldstein’s organization and others are lobbying to keep those references intact, given the rise in anti-Semitic acts around the world.

An agenda item on the occupation of Arab territories. While this resolution typically is a forum for anti-Israel resolutions, last year Neuer used the opportunity for a statement by U.N. Watch about Syrian-occupied Lebanon, for which he was ridiculed. This year, he plans to offer another statement and expects the written backing of several nongovernmental organizations.

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