UNITED NATIONS — While the whole world was transfixed by military maneuvers in Iraq, the Bush administration scored a major victory on the diplomatic battlefield at the United Nations.
Last Thursday, despite widespread resentment over the administration’s decision to bypass the Security Council regarding Iraq, the U.N. Human Rights Commission rejected a call to examine the human rights and humanitarian situation in that country.
At the same gathering, Israel came under harsh attack from Arab delegates, who leveled charges of Nazism and genocide against the Jewish state. The 53-state Human Rights Commission is holding its annual six-week session in Geneva and is expected to discuss several specific resolutions on Israel in the next two weeks.
Eight of the 53 members — Russia, Syria, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya — had called for a special sitting of the committee on “the human rights and humanitarian situation in Iraq as a consequence of the war.” While there have been several emergency sessions of the commission, there have only been two special “sitting committees” in the past: one on Burundi and one on Israel. Sitting committees are special sessions held during the annual meeting of the commission, while emergency sessions are convened at other times.
Washington was able to rally support from Western countries, including Australia, Canada and Ireland on behalf of the European Union, as well as several Latin American countries and even a couple of Asian states to beat back the resolution. While 18 countries, including all Arab and Muslim members, voted in favor, 25 voted against, with seven abstentions and three delegations absent during the public vote.
“This was just a phenomenal display of American capacity at the U.N.,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. She noted that France and Germany had given their nod for the E.U. to oppose the resolution despite their staunch opposition to the United States on Iraq at the Security Council. Russia and China, two other permanent members of the Security Council, supported the resolution.
Despite the fact that most of Washington’s attention is focused on Iraq, the State Department has been closely monitoring the debates in Geneva and working the phones, sources said. Former ambassador to the U.N. Jeanne Kirkpatrick leads the American delegation to the human rights commission.
“This was handled in the capitals in a very effective way,” a source close to the debates said.
It also led to an unusual event: Chilean ambassador Juan Enrique Vega was recalled to Santiago and resigned after he abstained during the vote, disobeying his government’s orders to oppose the resolution.
Human rights groups criticized the commission’s decision.
When the commission’s discussion turned to Israel, things turned ugly despite preemptive efforts to avoid nasty public exchanges.
Before the meeting, Najat al-Hajjaji, the Libyan ambassador in Geneva who is chairing the commission, reportedly met with her Israeli counterpart Yaakov Levy and promised to keep a tight rein on the debates, according to three sources. Last month, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations that he would do his best to keep things under control.
However, the Libyan used her opening speech to criticize Israel and the tone was set, participants said. While the Algerian and Syrian delegates fiercely attacked Israel, the most acerbic comments came from Nabil Ramlawi, the veteran Palestinian observer-delegate in Geneva.
He told the gathering that while “the world could eliminate old Nazism, [it] had not yet eliminated new Zionist Nazism.” He later added that “when Israel was established, it was established on Nazi ideology and its practices were even worse than those used by Nazism.”
The Israeli ambassador, speaking the next day, stressed that allegations and insults and references to the “racist Zionist movement” had been aired without reaction from the chairwoman.
Ramlawi said that he had indeed made an appeal to the world to put an end to the “racist Zionist movement,” which he said had gone beyond the acts of the Nazis in Israel for decades.
Levy blasted the commission’s chairwoman and its members for sitting idly when the Palestinian representative made his speech, which Levy said called for the elimination of the State of Israel.
Ramlawi persisted, claiming that both the Nazis and Israel had burned people, committed massacres and conducted terrorist attacks against humankind. “Zionism was racist and had been so since its creation,” he concluded.
Jewish groups, including B’nai B’rith, the AJCommittee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, expressed outrage.
“Besides the Zionism-equals-racism vocabulary, the most striking was his call for the elimination of Israel,” said Andrew Srulevich, head of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch. “He let the veil fall.”
Several observers said that Ramlawi has been known for his rambling statements and that his statements shouldn’t be taken at face value and as expressing Palestinian policy.
“The Geneva hands see this as the usual mudslinging stuff,” a Jewish source said. “But this year, the mud is thicker than ever and such talk has consequences.”
Israel is the only country to which an entire item agenda of the commission is devoted. Last year, eight Israel-related resolutions were voted on, up from five the previous year — essentially linked to Israeli operations in the West Bank. This year, observers believe there will be five resolutions again.