Because of its arcane complexity and multiple missions, it might be the most misunderstood organization on Earth. A fresh look reveals two sharply different UNs—one ghastly, and one that could, some day, make us proud.
When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited Jerusalem this August, he made a remarkable confession to a group of students. Describing the UN’s treatment of Israel, Ban reportedly said, “Unfortunately, because of the conflict, Israel has been weighed down by criticism and suffered from bias—sometimes even discrimination.”
It’s hard to recall another senior UN official, let alone a Secretary-General, being so candid about the Jewish state’s unhappy experience of virulent criticism, endemic bias, and structured discrimination at the international organization. In fact, Ban may have been a bit too frank for a man in his position. After he returned to New York, an Israeli reporter quizzed him over his admission. Ban responded with an awkward about-turn.
“I don’t think there is discrimination against Israel at the United Nations,” Ban said. His meaning was clear enough, but his subsequent explanation blurred the distinction between is and ought in a rather intriguing manner. “The Israeli government maybe raised this issue that there’s some bias against Israel, but Israel is one of the 193 member states,” Ban continued. “Thus, Israel should have equal rights and opportunities without having any bias, any discrimination. That’s a fundamental principle of the United Nations charter. And thus, Israel should be fully given such rights” (my emphasis).
As a description of how the UN is supposed to work, Ban’s statement was perfectly correct. Article 2.1 of the UN Charter makes it clear that the organization is “based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members.” Once a state is accepted by the UN, its domestic form of government should have no bearing on the rights it enjoys. Indeed, the sovereignty principle is what allows states with radically different characters, from democratic Canada to totalitarian North Korea, to sit together as equal members of the organization.
As an account of how the UN actually treats Israel, however, Ban’s comment was misleading to the point of frightening absurdity. While a reading of the Charter confirms that, as Ban put it, Israel “should have equal rights and opportunities,” any systematic review of Israel’s history at the international body reveals a unique pattern of discrimination. As Ron Prosor, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, pointed out in a response to Ban’s backtracking, “It doesn’t take the investigative skills of Agatha Christie to deduce that there’s bias against Israel at the United Nations.”
Prosor provided a summary of how this discrimination manifests itself: Each year, he said, the United Nations General Assembly passes at least twenty resolutions that single out Israel. These, Prosor added, “are passed in a ‘standard operating procedure,’ discriminating against Israel with absolutely zero connection to changing realities in the world or the Middle East.” Additionally, there is the notorious “Agenda Item 7” of the UN Human Rights Council. In 2007, 46 out of 47 members of the Council agreed that Israel is the only country in the world whose alleged human rights violations should be a permanent subject of its deliberations. Year after year, the Council consistently adopts more resolutions critical of Israel than of all other countries on earth combined–including 6 in its recent March session, as opposed to 4 for the rest of the world. As Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian Minister of Justice and expert on international law, recently called upon the UN to end the Council’s extreme bias. “It is not that Israel seeks to be above the law, but that Israel is systematically denied equality before the law in the international arena; it is not that human rights standards must not be applied to Israel, but that they must apply equally.”
To students of the UN and Israel, none of this is new. But it is worth keeping in mind that the UN is not defined solely by its relationship with Israel. What is most confusing to well-intentioned outside observers is the fact that alongside its tragic record of ignoring global atrocities in order to single out the Jewish State, it has other parts of it that often seem to function more or less according to their official promise. There are, in other words, two UNs: One is the international humanitarian body that, for all its flaws, nonetheless does a great deal of good. The second, which includes an array of agencies and official and semi-official bodies, is essentially a rabidly hostile, anti-Israel manifestation of the Palestinian national movement. Taxpayers from UN member states—especially the U.S., which provides 22 percent of the UN’s budget—and anyone who is affected by what amounts to the effective hijacking of important international bodies for one-sided and sometimes violent political ends have a right to question the wisdom of continuing to support the latter, while giving the former all the credit and support it deserves.
In December 1991, the General Assembly’s most notorious resolution was voided by its shortest. Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism, was revoked by a single line of text—Resolution 46/86, which read, “The General Assembly Decides to revoke the determination contained in its resolution 3379 of 10 November 1975.”
Despite its brevity, the 1991 resolution was something of a watershed moment, representing both a serious defeat for the “second” UN and a victory, in many ways, for supporters of the “first.” For opponents of Resolution 3379, the 1975 “Zionism-as-racism” resolution had wiped out the UN’s credibility as an honest broker with a single stroke. 30 years after World War II, Jews were once again being singled out for special opprobrium. Not only was Zionism—a political movement aimed at securing national self-determination for the Jewish people—being caricatured as a particularly toxic expression of colonialist bigotry, its creation, the State of Israel, was effectively being told that it had no right to exist.
Supporters of the resolution had, of course, a radically different perspective. In their minds, by equating Zionism with racism the UN was living up to its principles as an international agency dedicated to dismantling the last vestiges of the colonial era. Sovereignty mattered, yes, but it mattered most of all to those states and peoples emerging from the shackles of imperialism. The 72 favorable votes and 32 abstentions won by Resolution 3379 indicated something else as well: Namely, that the liberal democratic states who voted against it were now a distinct minority, overwhelmed by the combined numbers of the Soviet bloc and its allies in the Non-Aligned Movement.
By 1991, however, in the aftermath of the Gulf war and with the Soviet Union consigned to the ash heap of history, the regional balance of power had shifted. Now that Saddam Hussein’s regime had been humbled—though not eliminated—there was an unprecedented opportunity for the UN to host an international conference on securing a lasting peace in the Middle East. But as long as Resolution 3379 remained on the books, there was no chance of the organization filling this role in a manner that would be acceptable to the State of Israel. Hence the cautious brevity of Resolution 46/86, which was worded vaguely enough to secure the votes of countries that might otherwise have balked at endorsing a full-throated defense of Zionism.
In a sense, Resolution 46/86 was a critical milestone in the history of the UN’s involvement in the Middle East. At the same time, while it killed 3379, the spirit of that ghastly resolution lived on in the labyrinth of the UN’s subsidiary agencies, ensuring that Israel’s fundamental distrust of the organization lived on. Indeed, were it not for the Charter’s explicit guarantee of sovereign equality, it is unlikely that Israel’s UN membership would have survived this long—the country would either have left of its own accord or been expelled.
It is usually fair to say that outsiders’ perceptions of the United Nations are defined by where the organization stands on an issue of particular concern to them. And for many of them, the UN is indeed a force for good. For some, particularly in the developing world, the UN plays the role of political healer. For example, in Cambodia following the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. In a similar way, during East Timor’s transition to independence in the mid-1990s, two decades after a devastating genocide carried out by the Indonesian military, temporary United Nations trusteeship enabled the birth of relatively healthier, more stable domestic authority.
For others—again, chiefly in the developing world—the UN is primarily associated with its peacekeeping missions, which are staffed by soldiers from a vast array of countries, all of them wearing the distinctive blue helmets and berets that have become the organization’s signature. In Asia, Africa, and especially the Balkans, the UN has mounted peacekeeping operations on the scale of a small government, with civilian and military officials overseeing mandates instituted by the UN’s top-ranking body, the Security Council.
Peacekeeping, of course, is often much less helpful than UN supporters would have you believe. In 1993, UN peacekeepers opened fire on a crowd of civilian demonstrators in Mogadishu, killing 20 of them. Peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia were frequently accused of failing to prevent war crimes. More recently, they have been accused of sexually assaulting civilians, including children, around the world—a shocking phenomenon that UN officials have vowed to uproot.
For still others, the UN is principally a humanitarian enterprise. Its refugee agency, the UN High Council on Refugees (UNHCR), provides food and shelter to millions of victims fleeing wars around the world. However awful conditions might be in the camps that house refugees from Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo, they would be indescribably worse without UNHCR. Another agency, UNICEF, is tasked with protecting the rights of children on a global scale. Numerous other UN institutions deal with issues ranging from prosecuting accused war criminals to protecting historic sites and buildings. These aspects of the UN create a halo effect that can often leave critics of the organization looking churlish and provincial.
At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect anyone seriously interested in human rights, much less Israel itself, to simply forget the catalog of offenses perpetrated against the Jewish state in the name of altruism, while excruciatingly real human rights travesties were systematically ignored. The reality is that both before and after the farce of Resolution 3379, the UN has been a center of anti-Israel activities whose focus is not just Israeli policy, but the existence of Israel itself. For supporters of Israel, let alone the country itself, to take a more benign view of the UN, the organization will have to dramatically transform itself; and thus far, it has not done so.