On January 1, Ban Ki Moon officially begins his term as secretary general of the United Nations. Regrettably, the world body he inherits has not lived up to the noble principles enshrined in its charter.
Instead, we have witnessed sustained efforts by certain member states acting within U.N. bodies to de-legitimize the State of Israel and to denigrate the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Well before the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel had been denied many of the rights and privileges accorded to other member states. Governments have manipulated the organization to propagate the worst kinds of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment.
When Kofi Annan took office in 1997, no previous secretary general had publicly criticized or sought to redress these wrongs. The U.N. was created in the shadow of the Holocaust, yet previous secretaries general remained mute on the subject, referring instead only to World War II.
The first secretary general of the U.N., Trygve Lie, described his job as “the most impossible one in the world.” Then, there were fewer than 60 member states. Now there are 192, and the secretary general is held to account by all of them. The majority are former colonies of European powers, which tend to identify with the Palestinians and to follow the lead of Islamic states. Other governments simply find it easier to remain silent rather than voice any dissent.
This means that the secretary general is under unremitting pressure to denounce Israeli actions, and to suppress or soft-pedal any condemnation of the attacks to which Israel is responding. It is a real constraint under which all secretaries general operate. It is not surprising then, that Kofi Annan, along with the rest of the U.N., is perceived by Israel and the Jewish community as a harsh critic.
The world’s chief diplomat is obliged to uphold the highest standards expressed in the U.N. Charter. When the secretary general is thought to be using his moral authority unwisely or unfairly, especially in instances where a moral equivalence between victim and aggressor is suggested, there are periods of huge disappointment.
But some who follow U.N. affairs closely have detected important changes in the world body’s attitude toward Israel and the Jewish people during the last 10 years. Two years ago, during the U.N.’s first official seminar on antisemitism, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis told a packed auditorium at U.N. headquarters, “We used to chain ourselves outside the gate at the U.N. when we wanted to protest — now we’re (protesting) on the inside.”
And in August this year, when Israel’s counteroffensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon had clearly failed to achieve its objectives, the Israeli government turned to the U.N. for help in ending the conflict. The world body responded with a Security Council resolution blaming Hezbollah for the war and with a strengthened peacekeeping force.
Just 10 years ago it would have been hard to imagine such a scenario taking place, and some are inclined to give Annan much of the credit for the change. As Shimon Peres put it at a recent farewell dinner for Annan, “there are things a secretary general must do, and there are also things that he is free to do. We shall remember Kofi Annan — and thank him — for the things he did that he was free to do.” What follows is a list, in chronological order, of some of those things:
March 25, 1998: On his first official visit to Israel, Annan drew attention to the exclusion of Israel from the system of regional groupings in the U.N., and said that this must be corrected. Annan’s call for normalizing Israel’s status in the U.N., his reference to the U.N. resolutions blaming Israel and only Israel for violations in the region, his acknowledgement that the 1991-repealed General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism was a “low point,” and his unprecedented denunciation of antisemitism were welcomed as a sea change in U.N.-Israel relations.
His statements were the first public criticism by a secretary general of Israel’s unfair treatment in the U.N. and of what he called the “lamentable” resolution adopted by the General Assembly in 1975. While in Jerusalem, the secretary general made a solemn pledge to “usher in a new era of relations between Israel and the United Nations.”
December 8, 1998: Annan used the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1948 Genocide Convention to vow that the “Holocaust of the Jews” must never be repeated and linked the Holocaust to the U.N.’s founding mission. For the first time in U.N. history, a secretary general addressed the Holocaust in a Jewish context and spoke about the relationship of the Genocide Convention to the Holocaust.
December 12, 1999: In his address to the American Jewish Committee, the secretary general again spoke out about the need for Israel to join a regional group at the U.N., and said, “We must uphold the principle of equality among member states.” He promised to continue to work with all parties to find a solution.
May 2000: Israel was accepted as a temporary member of the Western European and Other States Group in New York. This allowed Israel to be elected to a variety of U.N. bodies. Israel was originally asked to reapply for membership to the group every four years, but in 2004, the first time Israel reapplied, it was granted an indefinite extension. During 2003-2004, Israel successfully presented candidates for six different U.N. inter-governmental positions, and it currently serves as a vice chair elected to the U.N. Commission on Disarmament. Twice, Israel has been chair of the Western European and Other States Group.
June 16, 2000: In a report to the Security Council, the secretary general concluded that Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425. Two days later, Annan’s conclusion was endorsed by the Security Council in a presidential statement.
October 1, 2001: At a special session of the General Assembly following the September 11 terrorist attacks, secretary general Annan urged member states to adopt a universal definition of terrorism, saying: “In the post-11 September era, no one can dispute the nature of the terrorist threat, nor the need to meet it with a global response. Some of the most difficult issues relate to the definition of terrorism. I understand and accept the need for legal precision. But let me say frankly that there is also a need for moral clarity. There can be no acceptance of those who would seek to justify the deliberate taking of innocent civilian life, regardless of cause or grievance. If there is one universal principle that all peoples can agree on, surely it is this.”
March 27, 2002: In an address to a summit-level meeting of the League of Arab States, Annan challenged the region’s leaders “to confront the menace of extremism, hatred and intolerance, and to ensure that they find no place in your school curricula, or in the minds of your young people.” During his time in office, the secretary general delivered similar messages to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and to U.N. media conferences on the Middle East, including one in Cairo on June 13, 2005, where he appealed to media representatives to refrain from myths, stereotypes and hate propaganda.
July 1, 2003: For the first time at the U.N., a senior staff member in the secretary general’s office was designated as a “focal point” for relations with the Jewish community.
June 21, 2004: The United Nations held its first official full-day seminar on antisemitism, and the secretary general declared that “Jews everywhere must feel that the United Nations is their home too.” Annan urged all member states to declare unambiguously that “international developments or political issues, including those in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify antisemitism,” and called for the U.N. human rights special rapporteurs and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to actively explore new ways of combating antisemitism more effectively, adding that “all parts of the Secretariat should be vigilant.” The conference began the positive momentum leading to General Assembly Resolution 60/7 on Holocaust Remembrance — a resolution that was cited by the Security Council when it condemned the remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Israel and Holocaust denial.
January 24, 2005: The U.N. General Assembly convened a special session to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the first official General Assembly session to address the subject. For the first time, the General Assembly heard a first-hand account from a person designated to speak as a Holocaust survivor. In his remarks to the General Assembly, the secretary general honored the victims and survivors of the death camps, and in another first stated, “The tragedy of the Jewish people was unique.”
At the secretary general’s request, the U.N. set aside its 60-year protocol prohibiting national anthems or prayers at U.N. events so that “Hatikvah” and “El Malei Rachamim” could be recited at the opening of the exhibit, “Auschwitz: The Depth of the Abyss,” held in the U.N. lobby in the presence of the secretary general and representatives of U.N. member states.
March 15, 2005: On a visit to Israel to inaugurate the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem, the secretary general welcomed the breakthrough of Israel’s membership in Western European and Other States Group in New York, and said, “I will do whatever I can to encourage corresponding groups in Geneva and Vienna to follow suit. We need to correct a long-standing anomaly that kept Israel from participating fully and equally in the work of the organization.” This helped set the stage for the increased participation of Israel in the work of the U.N. Ambassador Daniel Gillerman was elected by the 191 member states to serve as a vice president of the 60th Session of the U.N. General Assembly.
March 21, 2005: In his report titled “In Larger Freedom,” the secretary general said that “the moral authority of the United Nations” had been “hampered” by the failure to agree on a definition of terrorism. It was time, Annan said, to “set aside debates on so-called “state terrorism.” Annan also said that resistance to occupation “cannot include the right to deliberately maim or kill civilians,” and that “any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”
Throughout his two terms, Annan consistently condemned suicide bombings targeting Israelis. In a December 2006 General Assembly tribute, American ambassador Alejandro Wolff said of Annan, “He has been a strong voice condemning terrorism, and has pushed the U.N. to do its part in the global struggle against extremism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorist threats.”
May 2-3, 2005: The secretary general met with the first-ever international delegation of Jewish leaders to the U.N., organized by the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute and the United Nations Foundation. Annan discussed issues of mutual concern with 50 Jewish community leaders from 24 countries. Subsequently, he conducted other meetings with Jewish leaders from around the world, organized by B’nai Brith International, the U.N. Foundation, and the World Jewish Congress.
November 1, 2005: The U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 60/7 designating 27 January as an annual International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, and rejected “any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or in part.” The secretary general strongly supported efforts to establish the annual international day.
The resolution requested the secretary general to establish a program of outreach on “the Holocaust and the United Nations,” and to mobilize civil society for Holocaust remembrance and education. The resolution also called on the secretary general to report to the General Assembly on the implementation of the outreach program, which he did in June 2006, in his report A/60/882. The Department of Public Information was assigned responsibility for the outreach program, which focuses on activities aimed at remembering the victims of the Holocaust, and helping to prevent future acts of genocide.
December 9, 2005: The Security Council issued a press statement condemning remarks by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran that threatened Israel and denied the Holocaust. In its statement, the Security Council fully supported a statement made the previous day by the secretary general, in which he recalled the General Assembly resolution and urged all member states to educate their populations about the Holocaust. The Security Council statement also reaffirmed the rights and obligations of Israel as a full and long-standing member of the U.N., and reaffirmed that under the U.N. Charter “all members have undertaken to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
January 26, 2006: A candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of the Holocaust was held on the eve of the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day at U.N. headquarters in New York.
January 27, 2006: The U.N. held its first annual observance of the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. On this occasion the secretary general said, “Remembering is a necessary rebuke to those who say the Holocaust never happened or has been exaggerated. Holocaust denial is the work of bigots. We must reject their false claims whenever, wherever and by whomever they are made.”
May 17, 2006: Citing the secretary general’s report on Lebanon, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1680, dealing with Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence. American ambassador Bolton explained the significance of the secretary general’s report saying, “I view the references in the secretary general’s report to Iran’s disruptive and unhelpful role in Lebanon to be extremely important. It’s the first time Iran was mentioned.”
August 11, 2006: The Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1701, which effectively ended the fighting in Lebanon. Gillerman said that the resolution was “an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and to create a genuine new reality in our region.”
September 3, 2006: In a joint press conference in Tehran with the Iranian foreign minister, Annan said, in reference to a notorious Holocaust cartoon exhibit on display in the city, “the tragedy of the Holocaust is a sad and undeniable historical fact, so we should really handle that and accept that fact, and teach children what happened in World War II, and ensure that it is never repeated… And we should be careful not to say anything that can be misused as an excuse for incitement and hatred.”
November 29, 2006: The secretary general, who had pressed for the creation of the new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, publicly chastised the members of the council and warned them to handle the Arab-Israeli conflict “in an impartial way, and not allow it to monopolize attention at the expense of others where there are equally grave or even graver violations.”
December 7, 2006: The secretary general issued a press statement about the Holocaust conference to be convened the following week by the government of Iran which stated, “The secretary general would deeply deplore any conference whose purpose is to question or deny the Holocaust. Only a year ago, the General Assembly passed a resolution which ‘rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or part.’ The secretary general personally believes that any attempt to cast doubt on the reality of this unique and undeniable horror must be firmly resisted by all people of goodwill and of whatever faith. He spoke to President Ahmadinejad about this when he met him in Tehran in September. In the same resolution, the G.A. designated January 27 as an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the Holocaust.”
December 12, 2006: The secretary general used the opportunity of his last major speech on the Middle East to the Security Council to draw attention to — and publicly question the value of — the numerous General Assembly resolutions on Israel: “Some may feel satisfaction at repeatedly passing General Assembly resolutions or holding conferences that condemn Israel’s behavior. But one should also ask whether such steps bring any tangible relief or benefit to the Palestinians. There have been decades of resolutions. There has been a proliferation of special committees, sessions and Secretariat divisions and units. Has any of this had an effect on Israel’s policies, other than to strengthen the belief in Israel, and among many of its supporters, that this great organization is too one-sided to be allowed a significant role in the Middle East peace process?” The secretary general cited the three special sessions of the Human Rights Council on the Arab-Israeli conflict as an example of potentially “counterproductive” actions by U.N. bodies.
Responding to Annan’s report, Israeli ambassador Daniel Carmon told the Security Council, ”It is of course impossible in the allotted time to fully reflect on the secretary general’s legacy. But I nonetheless want to thank him for his many years of dedication to this organization and the nations of the world. Allow me to commend the secretary general on his remarks this morning, where he comprehensively addressed the complexity of the conflicts in our region, in an unbiased, balanced, manner — turning to both sides — constructively, which I must say, is not the traditional narrative we hear at the U.N. and its organs. We offer you, Mr. Secretary General, our deepest appreciation.”
Eve Epstein is a former consultant to the Executive Office of the United Nations secretary general and professor in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school. She is a vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and president of Epstein & Associates, a strategic communications management and training company.