For many Americans, and most Israelis, the words “United Nations” conjure up an image of an albatross at best, and a vulture at worst. Anti-Israel agendas, advanced by Islamic nations, routinely dominate the General Assembly and the U.N. human rights entities. Without the American veto, Israel would long ago have been the target of hostile binding resolutions in the Security Council.
Yet, for all this, we must resist the temptation to give up on the U.N.
The recent catastrophe in Haiti showcased one of the U.N.’s most indispensable roles. U.N. agencies form the backbone of the aid effort there. From Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and special envoy Bill Clinton on down, U.N. officials coordinated fundraising and diplomacy so that nearly four million people have received food assistance and 350,000 have received shelter.
Indispensable? Yes. Perfect? Far from it.
There is an inescapable irony in the fact that Jews were instrumental in establishing the U.N.’s human rights cachet, only to become targets of the most cynically devised condemnations. Last year’s Durban Review Conference (aka “Durban II”) and the Goldstone Report are still fresh in our memories. Before that there was the advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice declaring Israel’s security fence to be illegal.
Times are slowly changing, however, even on the political side. Fifteen years ago, few Western delegates might have walked out on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s antisemitic Durban II speech. Last year, most did so, not to please Washington but on principle.
Secretary-General Ban is leading by example to change the system. Holocaust commemoration and education, mandated by a U.N. General Assembly resolution, would have withered on the vine without persistent follow-through by the same bureaucrats we often malign as “the U.N.” When Ahmadinejad was opening a worldwide convention of Holocaust deniers three years ago, the General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Holocaust denial.
While much more remains to be done, it is important to recognize that there are definite limits to what can be achieved given the body’s universal membership. Without letting the secretary-general off the hook, the fact is that the U.N. is steered by its 192 member states, one-quarter of which Freedom House rates “not free.” No wonder many states use “human rights” primarily to scapegoat Israel and distract their citizens and the world from their own systemic violations.
The Jewish people overcame centuries of adversity by not just throwing up our hands and saying, “The world hates us, what’s the point?” We have persisted in finding a way forward and — along the way — making the world a better place for all.
Israel and world Jewry actively support disaster relief around the globe, and not just to get credit. The genocide in Darfur might have remained below the radar if not for a principled effort by Jewish activists. The International Criminal Court plays a critical role in putting present-day mass-murderers on notice, a substantive way to apply lessons of the Holocaust.
Like it or not, the U.N. does matter. Successive Israeli governments have predicated peace negotiations on the terms of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. For all the trouble getting agreement from Russia and China, the Security Council is the venue for promoting multilateral Iran sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency is the authority to monitor Iranian compliance. And the secretary-general embodies one-quarter of the Mideast Quartet that drives Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
Israeli diplomats have been trying to open a new proactive front even while defending against unfair attacks. The early returns have been promising: leadership positions in U.N. bodies, adoption of Israeli-sponsored resolutions, joint projects and more. It doesn’t reverse the political equation, but neither does it surrender to it.
The U.N. still needs change, starting with the Human Rights Council — but it will not change on its own. As Americans and as Jews, we need to engage rather than folding our arms in justified disgust.
Where we can advance our agenda, we lose nothing by working with and praising the U.N. — its people, its member states, its agencies. Where we see injustice against ourselves or others, as we often do, the Jewish community obviously reserves the right to speak out. There is no contradiction, this is no compromise. It is time for us to recognize this, publicly and as a community.
Jack Rosen is chairman of the Council for World Jewry.