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.
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