Europe’s Crumbling Myths – Irwin Cotler – Discrimination Against Israel in the International Arena: Undermining the Cause of Human Rights at the United Nations

“The United Nations is singling out Israel and the Jewish people for differential and discriminatory treatment in the international arena. It purports to protect international human rights, but instead gives anti-Jewishness a protective cover.” Irwin Cotler, Member of the Canadian Parliament and Chair of Canadian Parliamentarians for Global Action, has an extensive background in the struggle for human rights, including acting as lawyer for Nelson Mandela and Andre Sakharov. He observes how the human rights ideals he has advocated are being increasingly politicized and manipulated into weapons against Israel and the Jewish people.

Says Cotler: “Traditional anti-Semitism was the discrimination against, denial of, or assault on the rights of Jews to live as equals in their host society. The new anti-Jewishness does the same vis-a-vis the right of Israel and the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations. What is common to each form of anti-Jewishness is discrimination. All that has happened is that it has moved from discrimination against Jews as individuals or groups in their host society – a diaspora-oriented inquiry – to discrimination against Jews as a people, an Israeli-oriented and global inquiry.

“In the past, social scientists developed indicators to identify, monitor and measure traditional anti-Semitism, including discrimination against Jews in housing, education and employment. Based on these indices, one could conclude that anti-Semitism is declining; yet many feel it is increasing. The reason for this discrepancy is that appropriate indices to identify and measure the new anti­ Jewishness are yet to be developed.” What is needed, according to Cotler, is a rights-based inquiry, organized around anti-discrimination principles.

Genocidal Anti-Semitism

“Genocidal anti-Semitism, the public call for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews wherever they may be, is the most lethal  category of the new anti-Jewishness, and is expressed in many ways. The first is the Covenants  of the terrorist organizations, like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah, which perpetrate  terrorist  acts in pursuit  of this genocidal  objective.” Cotler states the notion of a ‘suicide’ or ‘homicide bombing’ is a misnomer. These are genocidal bombings, which the terrorist Covenants openly acknowledge and assert as their intent and objective.

“Another example of genocidal anti-Semitism  is the fatwas regularly issued by radical Islamic clerics. These are religious execution writs which not only call for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews, but proclaim it as a religious obligation. Israel emerges not only as the Jew among nations, but the Salman Rushdie among them. The silence of the United Nations and the Western world in the face of this genocidal anti-Semitism is worrying. Worse even, there are threats of sanctions against Israel when it defends itself against terrorist bombings for which these fatwas provide the ideological backing. It was Iran, however, against whom the European community threatened sanctions when a fatwa was issued against controversial  author Salman Rushdie in  1989.

“The third example is the public call by member states of the international community – Iraq or Iran – for the destruction of another member state of the international community, Israel. This constitutes a fundamental assault on the United Nations Charter principles of universality and equality. This assault is possible because the United Nations’ political configuration reflects the 54 Islamic countries among its members. Further, many of the democracies in the UN are not prepared to stand up and be counted. The UN is thus not a forum for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather  the arena in which this conflict is waged. As the late Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, once put it, if the non-democratic blocs wished to pass a resolution that the earth is flat, it would succeed.

“In summary, Israel is the only state, and the Jews the only people in the world today, that is the object of a standing set of threats from governmental, religious and terrorist bodies seeking its destruction. The worst features of this genocidal anti-Semitism are the state-sanctioned genocidal culture of hate on the one hand, and the silence, if not acquiescence, to this genocidal culture on the other.”

The Road to Durban

“As one involved in the human rights movement, I greeted the announcement in 1997 of the first human rights conference of the twenty-first century – the World Conference Against Racism in Durban – with anticipation and even excitement. It would commemorate the dismantling of South Africa as an apartheid state; it would give expression to such non-represented causes as those of the Aboriginals, the untouchables of India and the Roma of Europe. It would address the African concern for the slave trade as a crime against humanity for which an apology and indemnification were required.

“Regrettably, Durban was converted from a conference against racism into one of racism against Israel. The commemoration  of the dismantling  of South African apartheid became a call to dismantle Israel as an apartheid state. Rather than speaking in the name of humanity and underrepresented causes, Durban spoke in the name of inhumanity. Rather than celebrating the emergence of human rights as the new secular religion of our time, Israel was singled out as the meta­ human rights violator of our time – as the new anti-Christ. The United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban became a festival of hate.

“One has to appreciate what transpired on the road to Durban to understand how this happened. One of the four regional preparatory conferences in Teheran, designed to draft a declaration and program of action against racism, excluded Israel and Jewish NGOs from participating in this preparatory conference. This exclusion was itself a form of apartheid, and at that point the alarm should have been sounded.

“This regional conference issued one of the worst indictments ever registered against Israel. It characterized the Occupied Territories, which Israel acquired in self-defense in the 1967 war, as a ‘crime against humanity, a new form of apartheid and a threat to international peace and security.’ It accused Israel of being a perpetrator of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – language out of the Nuremberg indictment for the very victims of Nuremberg. This indictment was supported by many European countries shortly thereafter at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. One might call this ‘the Nazification of Israel under the auspices of the United Nations’ in which many of the world’s democracies  acquiesced.

“This de-legitimization of Israel and the Jewish people was not new, but it exploded in Durban. The Durban indictments  of  Israel  as  an  apartheid  Nazi state were then used to justifying ‘resistance,’ i.e. terror against this pariah state. Durban and the UN Commission on Human Rights have given expression to a new form of legalized anti-Semitism under the rubric of the UN. Unfortunately, leaders of Western democracies with whom I have spoken do not appreciate how much the United Nations provides a protective cover for this new anti-Jewishness.”

Undermining the Integrity of International Humanitarian Law

“Outside the UN,” says Cotler, “the de-legitimization phenomenon manifests itself in many ways.” In December 2001, the contracting parties to the Geneva Convention gathered in Geneva to accuse Israel of human rights violations and Convention breaching. The latter was adopted in 1949 and resulted from the horrors of the Holocaust and the imperative of protecting civilians in a conflict. “For 52 years after the Second World War, the most horrific of atrocities continued unabated, including the genocide in Cambodia, the ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Balkans, the unspeakable – and preventable – genocide in Rwanda, and the killing fields in Sudan and Sierra Leone. Despite these horrific breaches of the Geneva Convention, its contracting parties were never convened to address any of these atrocities. The first time they were convened in 52 years was in reference to Israel and the Occupied Territories. This discriminatory treat­ ment of a member state of the international community undermines the integrity and authority  of international  humanitarian  law.

“This same process of denying Israel equality before the law and interna­tional due process was used in Spring 2002 at the UN Commission on Human Rights meeting. Even before the hearing began, the agenda listed as a separate item a country-specific indictment – human rights violations by Israel, while another item was reserved for human rights violations in the rest of the world. The meeting began, therefore, as an Alice in Wonderland human rights charade where the conviction and sentence were pronounced even before the hearing commenced.

“Moreover, forty percent of the resolutions passed were against one member state of the international community, Israel, while the major human rights viol­ators in the world such as China and Iran enjoyed exculpatory immunity with no resolutions passed against them. This moral asymmetry not only prejudices Israel, but it further undermines the UN’s integrity under whose auspices this occurs, and the authority of international human rights law in whose name these indictments are passed.”

The United Nations: A Case Study of anti-Jewishness

Cotler stresses that “Like any other state, Israel is responsible for violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The horrors of the Holocaust and ongoing Jewish suffering over time do not give the Jewish people any privilege or preference before the law. Yet Israel is systematically being denied equality before the law. Human rights standards should apply to Israel, but these standards are not being applied equally to anyone else. Israel must respect human rights but the rights of Israel deserve equal respect.

“By this discrimination against Israel, the United Nations has become a case study of the new anti-Jewishness and the singling-out of the Jewish people for differential and discriminatory treatment. This case study could be illustrated throughout the workings of the United Nations. For example, one could begin with the UN Security Council, the authoritative standard setting body on international law. Despite the killing fields throughout the world, the UN Security Council sat from March to May 2002 in almost continuous session discussing a non­ existent massacre in Jenin. It engaged in an obsessive preoccupation with Israel while genocide  by attrition was taking place in Sudan, and mass murder was commonplace in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa and Asia.

“Similarly,” Cotler notes, “the United Nations General Assembly annually passes some 20 resolutions against Israel,  as many  as are  passed  against  the rest of the international community combined. Again, the major human rights violators escape unscathed. While these decisions are not binding, they are important representations  of the political  culture of the international community.

“Israel is effectively disenfranchised in the UN. It cannot become a member of UN bodies such as the Human Rights Commission because it is not a full­ fledged member of any regional grouping from which countries can be nominated or elected to UN bodies. It has been excluded from its proper geographical location, Asia and is a limited member of the Western European and Other Group (WEOG). Its status does not grant it the right to participate equally in the deliberations of the UN or to be nominated and elected to international bodies. While the UN Charter requires it to operate pursuant to principles of the equality of nations large or small, Israel is disenfranchised.”

The Indictments of the UN Specialized Agencies

A similar attitude can be found in the resolutions of the United Nations’ special­ized agencies such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), the  World Health Organization (WHO), UNESCO, etc. The ILO holds Israel to  be  the enemy of  labor,  claiming it suppresses Palestinian trade unionism. The WHO considers Israel the enemy of health, arguing it violates the health of Palestinian inhabitants. UNESCO accuses  Israel of being the enemy of culture because of alleged desecration of historic sites. Elsewhere Israel is charged with being the enemy of women and children because of its supposed suppression of Palestinian women and children, and Israel is the only country which has been declared a ‘non-peace  loving  nation.’

“In the UN’s deliberative forums one also finds the teaching of contempt against, and the demonizing of, the Israeli state. For example, the blood libel – a horrific example of the demonizing of Israel – is still found in the proceedings of the UN Human Rights Commission. A Syrian delegate inserted into the record the book by his country’s Defense Minister, Mustafa Tlass, which claims Jews drink the blood of Christian children or use it to bake matzah for Passover. A motion to have this expunged did not succeed and thus it remains on the commis­ sion’s record. As well, the Palestinian representative to the Commission in 1997 accused Israel of injecting the AIDS virus into 300 Palestinian children.

“Also in the treaty-monitoring bodies of the UN one finds the same preoccu­pation with Israel as well as similar indictments.”

Bomb Factories in UNRWA-supervised camps

“Another corrupted dimension of the United Nations is the United Nations Relief and Refugee Work Agency (UNRWA). This institution is supposed to work for the relief of refugees. Under its supervision and management, the refugee camps became part of the culture of incitement as well as bomb factories.

“Out of 10 emergency sessions ever called by the United Nations, six have dealt with Israel. To summarize one might say: Israel has occupied 60% of the time  the  United  Nations  has  spent  in emergency  sessions.  In  the  eyes  of its specialized agencies, Israel is the enemy of all that is good, and thus of human­ kind. In other words, Israel poisons the international well. This serves as the contemporary analogue of the medieval indictment of the Jew poisoning the local spring.”

The International Criminal Court

One thus wonders whether the new International Criminal Court – that began operating on July 1, 2002 – will also become an instrument of discrimination against Israel. Says Cotler: “I supported the ICC’s establishment as one of the most dramatic developments in international criminal law since the end of the Second World War. The Nuremberg tribunal was not a permanent one. There was a need to institutionalize and implement the Nuremberg legacy of ‘never again.’ Indeed, the 201 century was not only the age of atrocity but also the age of impunity. Most perpetrators of war crimes were never brought to justice.

“It took the almost unthinkable and unspeakable – the ethnic cleansing and genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda – to provide the impetus for the establishment of an international criminal court. This ought to have happened long ago. Indeed, Israel and the Jewish people were among the original proponents of such an international tribunal in the aftermath of Nuremberg. The international criminal tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were ad hoc creations and geography­ specific. The International Criminal Court was to be the first permanent, international court with a global criminal jurisdiction.

“There is still reason,” says Cotler, “to be hopeful that the ICC will not become yet another international institution subjected to partisan politics and demonizing agendas. One would hope its judges and prosecutors, chosen for their independence and integrity, would ensure fair hearings and judgments. One would hope that the safeguards built into the International Criminal Court Treaty to protect against politically motivated prosecutions would prevail. There is  no certainty, however, because the ICC is related to the prejudices and culture of the international  community,  and its political  configurations.”

Cotler says that if the ICC emerges as another arena for discriminatory treatment of Israelis, the international criminal justice system will be further undermined. “The democracies  and human  rights NGOs  stood at the forefront of the creation of the ICC. If they acquiesce in politically motivated prosecutions, they will be acquiescing in the dismantling of the international criminal justice system as a whole.”

Prejudice in Human Rights NGOs?

“The NGO movement can take credit for the ICC treaty. Without its leadership and sustained commitment, the treaty would not have been established. Its major proponents  included  organizations  such as Human  Rights Watch,  Amnesty

International, the International Commission of Jurists and the International Soci­ety for Human Rights. Yet it was also many of the human rights NGOs who acquiesced in the Durban hate conference.

“In general, Amnesty International does important work and I have had a longtime association with them. However, when looking at their work in the Middle East, one can discern a false moral equivalence in respect of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. For example, they will do a one-off study – or perhaps no study at all – of the dictatorial and authoritarian non-democracies in the Middle East while maintaining a sustaining indictment of the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel.

“Their work on Israel may be the result of unawareness and ignorance, but the effect, if not the intent, leads to singling out Israel for discriminatory treatment. In doing so, they fall victim to Voltaire’s dictum that if you take something out of context, you can hang anybody. Their work thus finds expression without sufficiently contextualizing the hostile neighborhood in which Israel finds itself, its democratic polity, its free press, its independent judiciary, and the pervasiveness of its human rights culture.

“Human Rights Watch is another NGO making excellent contributions in several areas. However, it also engages in false moral equivalencies when it ignores the culture of accountability in Israel involving a fiercely independent media, the role of its judiciary with major  legal standing in the world, the critical role of Israeli-based NGOs, the critiques of public intellectuals, and the no-holds-barred Parliamentary debates. For example, Human Rights Watch will investigate how the Arabs are portrayed  as second-class citizens in the Israeli education system, a discriminatory dimension which has  found broad expression and critique  in Israeli society. Human Rights Watch has yet to investigate the state and government-sanctioned culture of hate that finds expression in the Palestinian mosques, media, educational system, and summer camps.

“Fuad Ajami of John Hopkins University captured the essence of the dangers of this state-sanctioned culture of hate in pointing out that: ‘The suicide bomber of the Passover massacre did not descend from the sky; he walked straight out of the culture of incitement let loose on the land, a menace hovering over Israel, a great Palestinian and Arab refusal to let that country be, to cede it a place among the nations, he partook of the culture all around him – the glee that greets those brutal deeds of terror, the cult that rises around the martyrs and their families.’

“The human rights NGOs have ignored this state-sanctioned culture of hate, as they have ignored the lethality of genocidal anti-Semitism which underpins it. They have ignored the one enduring lesson of the Second World War: Nazism almost succeeded. In the genocide of European Jewry it did succeed; not only because of its industry of death and technology of terror, but because of its ideology and pathology of hate, and its state-sanctioned teaching  of contempt and demonizing  of the other.”

The Holocaust Began with Words

“It is not surprising then, that the Supreme Court of Canada, in the trials of Holocaust deniers, affirmed: ‘the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers. It began with words.’ Tragically, fifty years later, this lesson has still not been learned. The hate trafficking in Rwanda and Bosnia took us down the road to ethnic cleansing and genocide; and the worst arena today is to be found in the Arab countries and Palestinian  Authority.

“If the human rights NGOs keep  characterizing  the  state-sanctioned  hate and terrorism against Israel which seeks to maximize civilian casualties as acts of violence no different from Israeli ‘acts of violence’ against the Palestinians which seek to minimize civilian casualties, they are discredited from any analysis of human rights in the Middle East.”

Contributing to the Requiem of Human Rights?

“The leading NGOs have yet to address the systematic discrimination against Israel in the UN, or in particular, in the UN Human Rights Commission in which they play such an active role. They risk becoming part of the problem rather than the solution. For example, they have yet to address the following particulars respecting the denial of equality before the law – and international  due process – to Israel before the UN Human Rights Commission:

Israel is the only country subjected to an item-specific, country-specific indict­ment on the agenda even before the Commission meeting begins.

Israel is the only country to be the object of five annual indictments. No other state has more than one resolution passed against it, and the major human rights violators enjoy exculpatory immunity.

Israel is the only country effectively disenfranchised. It can neither vote nor be elected to the UN Human Rights Commission.

Israel is the only country that is the object of an open-ended investigative mandate by the Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories; the mandates of other Rapporteurs are subject to review and renewal.

Israel is the only country that is the object of a special standing committee on the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, whose members do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, thereby raising a reasonable apprehension of bias.

Israel is the only country regularly singled out for systematic indictment throughout  the thematic deliberations at the Commission.

Israel is the only country that is the object of group vilifying speech delegitimiz­ing Israel and its people.

“Thus, the UN Human Rights Commission is in danger of being converted from  a  repository  of  human  rights  to  a  body  that  violates  the  UN  Charter under the guise of human rights. The human rights NGOs – so central to the integrity and work of the UN Human Rights Commission – cannot acquiesce through silence.”

Restoring all Territories in the Absence of Peace Rewards Aggression

“A central point of discussion in the accusations against Israel concerns its position vis-a-vis the Occupied Territories and the interpretation of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. It must be appreciated that the Arab culture of incitement goes back many decades. For example, when I was a student in Israel before the Six Day War, the Arab leadership was proclaiming a new genocide against Israel as their objective. A military pact was entered into between Syria, Egypt and Jordan, with the war to be joined in by Iraq and other members of the Arab League. Finally, Israel exercised its right of self-defense and entered into what became characterized as the Occupied Territories.

“The international community’s approach after the Six Day War is character­ized by a sense of moral and legal hypocrisy. For example, as the documentary evidence demonstrates, Israel was the victim of aggression. Accordingly, to restore all territory to the aggressors in the absence of an agreed-upon peace agreement would create an international principle and precedent of not only licensing but also rewarding acts of aggression.”

Cotler affirms that if this were the case, and if UN Security Council Resolution 242 were so interpreted, then nation states would know that they could wage war with impunity with a clear assurance that they could get back all the territory lost in an aggressive war. “In effect, one could argue that the target state should be indemnified with some territory if for no other reason than to act as a deterrent against a future aggressor and as a form of moral restitution to the target state.”

Cotler ends his observations by emphasizing the development of the symbolic and symbiotic relationship between the United Nations and Israel. “Israel is the only country established by the United Nations, in 1948, and regarded then as a ‘light unto the nations.’ In 1948 also, the Genocide Treaty – the ‘never again’ treaty – was the first ever international human rights treaty, and Israel was a state born of that commitment. Fifty-five years later this relationship has been turned on its head.”

Irwin Cotler was born in 1940 in Montreal. He is a member of the Canadian Parliament and serves as special  advisor on the International Criminal Court to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He holds an arts and law degree from McGill University and a graduate law degree from Yale Law School. He has been teaching constitutional and international law at McGill University where he directs its International Human Rights Program. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and the Hebrew  University.

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