President Bush’s criticism of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in his keynote address at this year’s U.N. General Assembly opening must have been music to Jewish ears. After all, the commission saves some of its harshest opprobrium for Israel, singling out the Jewish state more than any other nation for repeated and disproportionate criticism. This despite the fact that judging Israel on the commission have been representatives of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, including Libya, Syria, Sudan and Cuba.
“Call a spade a spade, that’s what the president did,” Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told JTA after Bush’s speech Wednesday. “I think it’s very important. Human rights is good, but it has to be across the board.”
Bush’s criticism came just hours after U.N. member states finished hammering out an Outcome Document that the 170-plus international leaders gathered in New York will be asked to sign onto.
The 35-page document — which includes sections on terrorism, management reform, and the General Assembly, among others — was approved Tuesday at the eleventh hour and includes watered-down language on the mechanism for changing the commission into a council that would exclude human-rights violators. The formulation follows weeks of debate over what should be included in the document.
“When this great institution’s member states choose notorious abusers of human rights to sit on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, they discredit a noble effort and undermine the credibility of the whole organization,” Bush said. “If member countries want the United Nations to be respected — respected and effective — they should begin by making sure it is worthy of respect.”
Immediately after addressing the General Assembly, Bush spent a half-hour with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. At a photo session prior to their meeting, Bush praised Sharon for Israel’s recent Gaza withdrawal.
“I know it was hard, but I admire your courage,” Ha’aretz quoted Bush as telling Sharon.
Bush said he was looking forward to discussing with Sharon how to advance the “road map” peace plan, adding that the Palestinians need “to come together and establish a government that will be peaceful to Israel.” Sharon said he was happy he and Bush could work together to promote Middle East peace, Ha’aretz said.
Sharon also met leaders of two Islamic nations at U.N. headquarters Wednesday. He exchanged pleasantries with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in a U.N. hallway. Israel and Pakistan have no formal ties, although their foreign ministers held talks earlier this month and Musharraf was to address American Jewish groups in New York over the weekend.
Sharon also met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had met the previous day with several Jewish organizational leaders.
“The Turks have come a tremendously long way in understanding Jews, Israel and the relationship between Jews, Israel and America,” said Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, who attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Jewish groups were meeting with numerous world leaders in conjunction with the summit, as they do each year during the General Assembly opening.
Given the massive media presence in New York for the summit, Sharon received rock-star treatment in the halls of the United Nations. Dozens of reporters struggled to gain entry to a conference room on the U.N.’s lower level to catch a glimpse of the Israeli prime minister, and security guards shouted and called in backup to ease the media crush.
Sharon was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Thursday, he’ll address the General Assembly, followed by meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and representatives of the European Union Troika of Britain, France and Germany that is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
On Friday he was to meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and on Sunday he was scheduled to see U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Sharon also will be meeting with Jewish leaders on both Friday and Sunday.
Sharon was expected to focus on Iran’s nuclear potential during his visit to the United States, Israeli officials said. Iran’s nuclear aspirations long have worried Jerusalem, and Israel is hoping to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, to refer Iran to the Security Council for sanctions when the IAEA board meets Monday in Vienna.
A former Iranian president, who still holds a position of great influence in the Islamic republic, has spoken publicly of attaining nuclear weapons so that Iran can annihilate the Jewish state, even if Iran suffers millions of casualties in an Israeli counterstrike.
Ambassador Richard Schifter, who chaired the U.S. delegation to the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission from 1981-’86 and again in 1993, said Bush’s condemnation of the body was on the mark.
“On the basis of my experience, I agree,” Schifter, who today chairs the American Jewish International Relations Institute, told JTA. “It is appropriate in my view for the U.S. government to alert the general public to the realities of the United Nations.”
That includes the fact that the “prevailing culture at the U.N. is anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic,” he said.
Israel last year was the subject of some 100 critical resolutions, decisions and human-rights reports by U.N. bodies, nearly twice as many as Sudan, the next country on the list, according to the Web site Eye on the U.N.(www.eyeontheun.org).
Annan told leaders that the fact that agreement has not been reached on all areas of U.N. reform “does not render them any less urgent.”
“This package is a good start,” he said, referring to the Outcome Document. “On some issues we have real breakthroughs. On others, we have narrowed our differences and made progress. On others again, we remain worryingly far apart.”
Jewish groups agree that the work of reform is not yet done.
“We’re hoping that reform does not end here,” said Amy Goldstein, director of U.N. affairs at B’nai B’rith International. “There’s a lot to reform at the U.N.”
As for reform of the Human Rights Commission, Goldstein said, the language in the document represents a start, but implementation is key.
The document “strongly condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes as it constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security.”
The discussion of terror does not include an exemption for national liberation movements, a caveat favored by the Muslim world that was debated in the lead-up to the summit and opposed by the United States, Israel and others.
“A definition that provides an out-and-out condemnation of terrorism is revolutionary for the U.N.,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch in Geneva. “If you can’t define the threat, you can’t fight it.”
Still, in exchange for excluding the liberation-movement exception, the final document left out language that would have said targeting civilians is unjustified. It also makes no mention of Israel in its discussion of the General Assembly, which passes some 20 anti-Israel resolutions each year.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.