In the aftermath of World War II, as the world came to terms with the Holocaust and the terrible costs of the war, the Allied powers that had vanquished the Nazis and Imperial Japan ,established the United Nations. The new international organisation was tasked with a high order: to preserve and promote “international peace and security” and to foster relationships between nations based on equal rights and respect for human rights. Interestingly, the UN held its first General Assembly in London, at Central Hall, Westminster on 10 January 1946.
In the years since its establishment, the United Nations’ has found it difficult to live up to the task for which it was founded and its record on human rights has been poor. On the other hand, various UN bodies have been incredibly successful at singling out one nation: Israel. The UN General Assembly (UNGA), for example, has been a prime venue for one-sided, anti-Israel activity on behalf of member states. In 2013 alone, UNGA passed 21 resolutions singling out Israel while it remained silent about the disgraceful and systematic abuses of power and human rights violations in Sudan, China, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe, to name but a few. The only other countries to be mentioned in a similar manner were Iran, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and North Korea, each of which had one resolution to their name.
Perhaps most well known of all for its penchant for Israel bashing is the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UNHRC was supposed to be the forum that would prove more effective than its predecessor at “promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner”. Unfortunately, and somewhat prophetically, the UNHRC did not bring a breath of fresh air to the international stage. Instead, it was more of the same. UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO that holds the UN to account, found that the UNHRC passed 33 Israel-related resolutions in its first four years alone. The UN Durban Review Conference which convened in Geneva in April 2009 was another example of the ways in which Israel received special treatment. Following in the tradition of the UN’s first World Conference on Racism, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, the Review Conference gave Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yet another stage from which he spread his anti-Semitic and anti-Israel vitriol.
And yet, despite many reasons to be pessimistic, 2014 could be a year of opportunity on the human rights front – for the United Kingdom, for Israel and for the Human Rights Council. The United Kingdom has been elected to serve on the UNHRC for a two-year term and Foreign Secretary Hague has stated that he is committed to “promoting human rights and democratic values” as a “central objective of UK foreign policy, as well as a crucial factor in ending conflict and building stability worldwide”. At the end of 2013, Israel has decided to resume cooperation with the Council. At a recent meeting in Geneva with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed hope that this will be an opportunity to begin anew and breathe new life into an international institution whose credibility has suffered much over the years.
As British Jewish citizens and as supporters of Israel, we welcome Britain and Israel’s renewed engagement with the Council. As a religious minority, we have a vested interest in the cause of human rights, in the protection of the rights of the few. As Jews, we have a moral obligation to stand up for those who suffer discrimination and repression wherever they may be. To its great credit, the United Kingdom has contributed an unprecedented amount of resources for alleviate suffering and promote human rights worldwide. Most recently in Syria, the UK Government has committed £600 million to support victims of the conflict. Under the radar, and despite the official state of war between the two countries, Israel has been engaged in providing assistance to victims. Aid organisations have been smuggling food, blankets and the like into the war torn country and victims of the violence have found refuge in Israeli hospitals. Through the work of World Jewish Relief, the British Jewish community has shown its commitment to protecting the rights of those who are persecuted and those who are affected by the devastating effects of war.
However, beyond providing critical aid, international organisations such as the UNHRC exist to serve a purpose – to help prevent conflict, to hold violators to account and to protect the lives and rights of people all over the world. To this end, 2014 presents an opportunity for collaboration between the UK, Israel and the Human Rights Council. By engaging constructively, the UK Government to seize this opportunity, using the UNHRC as a venue for fostering cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians, while at the same time ensuring that the Council pays the necessary attention to the numerous human rights violations taking place in other places around the world. As an outspoken advocate of human rights, Britain has the opportunity and the responsibility to prove that the UNHRC faithfully and fairly lives up to its mission statement and British Jewry should engage with Government to ensure that this occurs.