Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch in Geneva, lives to take down the bad guys. He faces some of the world’s worst perpetrators of human rights abuses as they deny their crimes and scapegoat Israel at the same time.
Talking with Neuer, two things become clear. The first is that he cares deeply and passionately for human rights. The second is that he is Canadian and that he credits his nationality with helping him in fighting for Number 1. He is a strange mix of poised seriousness and a good sense of humor- another thing he says helps him do his job.
Anyone who follows the UN to even a minimal degree knows that Israel is singled out disproportionately for resolutions and condemnations. Among other things I asked Neuer, what is behind this seeming bias? How entrenched is it? And what can we do about it? A few of his answers surprised me.
Who is Hillel? Where did he grow up, what did he study, how did he become the man who stands up for Israel and human rights at the UN?
I grew up in Montreal studied poli-sci and liberal arts. I went to law school and earned degrees in civil law and the common law system. I then studied for a masters in law in Jerusalem in comparative international and institutional law. I was at the Shalem Center as fellow, and clerked in the Supreme Court here. I worked for a New York law firm and left there to work for UN Watch.
How did UNWatch come to be?
UNWatch was founded by Morris Abram, the Jewish legendary civil rights attorney who worked closely with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and won the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case granting equality to the votes of African-Americans. In the 1960s he represented the United States on human rights committees in the UN, and eventually became the US ambassador to the UN in Geneva. He voted against the anti Israel biased resolutions in the 1960s-70s, and in 1993, he created an organization dedicated to monitor the UN and make sure it lived up to its own principles, fought against anti Semitism and anti Israel-bias, and fought for universal human rights. That was UNWatch.
It’s pretty clear to see that Israel is singled out for condemnations and resolutions in the UN. What is behind this?
The UN onslaught against Israel has been entrenched since 1975, when the UN adopted the Zionism is Racism resolution. It was repealed, but the infrastructure of anti Israel resolutions is still there. For example, there were 20 resolutions against Israel this year at the General Assembly in New York, compared to only three resolutions against all other countries combined. In Geneva, at the UN Human Rights Council, there have been five condemnatory resolutions against Israel this year, and four on the rest of the world combined.
The campaign against Israel was started by the Arab and Islamic states in the late 1960s. Together, they have 56 votes, and they use them to bring support to their causes: if you vote for them, they will vote for you. Believe it or not, terror also helped their cause. In the 70s, when there were Palestinian hijackings, governments including Switzerland went to the PLO and made a deal: if the PLO stopped terrorism in each country, then those countries would vote for the Arab causes in the UN. And so they did.
There is also the fact that those who go after Israel want to deny the Jewish people safety and security. There is no question that demonizing Israel is the new anti-Semitism.
Neuer’s work at UNWatch means that the three months a year the UNHRC is in session, he gives speeches, many speeches. In the last session he spoke 10-15 times covering all kinds of issues and human rights around the world including Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, China etc.
I suggest that the countries whose human rights offenses he exposes must not like him very much.
His reply? “The governments don’t. The human rights victims do.”
And this seems to be the most important thing to him.
In the videos of your speeches, you are so calm and collected despite constant interruptions and accusations by some of the worst regimes in the world. How do you remain so calm and not react to the insanity going on around you?
It helps to be Canadian. When I take the floor, I express the full passion that I have for human rights victims around the world who are being ignored, whether in China, Iran, Russia, Turkey- and I bring that to my presentation. So too, when I address the anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel, I bring the full passion of that injustice to my speech.
At the same time, to be effective one has to know how to restrain oneself — and so I bring my full Canadian-ness which is to be calm, cool, collected. Just like a surgeon who comes to the operating table and there is blood and guts all over the place, at that time the worst thing to do is to allow your emotions to get a hold of you. You must be focused on the job at hand and be calm and collected. So when I’m in that room and I see the equivalent of blood and guts- dictators, tyrannies, people like the Syrians and Iranians who murder their own people, and others who torture theirs, and they speak of human rights, it’s horrific. But I have only two minutes to best further the cause of true human rights and democracy, to think how best to fight dictatorships and double standards.
Outside of that room do you ever become ‘not Canadian’ for a few minutes?
He laughs, “Um… After twelve years, on the job…you have to know how to be effective. You need to know when and where. We use humor to expose the Orwellian absurdity of the place. For example, there is a UN expert of 15 years who is the co founder of the Muammar Gadhafi human rights prize, a man named Jean Ziegler. He not only founded the prize, but he won it! We exposed that and you have to see the humor in it at the same time as you decry the injustice and the disgust of such appointments.
“Of all that you see and experience, the bad, the worse and the ugly, what of the past 12 years stand out most?” The answer comes easily.
Of many moments, the most classic is Durban II. Durban was the world UN conference on racism turned anti-Semitic hate fest, where thousands marched in the streets saying that Hitler should have finished the job. This was a traumatic time for Jews and others. The sequel in 2009 was held in front of the UN Watch office in Geneva. We initiated a major counter effort during Durban 2, which had Ahmadinejad as the opening speaker. We brought thousands of demonstrators to Geneva and organized a real human rights conference, where real victims of human rights from around the world testified about real experiences.
We also exposed the hypocrisy of the UN conference where Gadhafi’s secretary was the Chair of the preparatory committee for two years. We brought in a famous Libyan victim, a Palestinian doctor who suffered discrimination because he was a minority. The Libyan ambassador, shocked to be faced with this victim of her regime, continuously interrupted the doctor’s testimony and eventually turned off his microphone, but enough of his story was heard covered by the media (see it here).We also held a rally to speak out about Israeli victims of human rights abuse, who were ignored by the UN conference where Israel was singled out yet again. Natan Sharansky spoke, Elie Wiesel, and many others spoke against anti Semitism.
Beyond countering and exposing the conference for what it was, Neuer employed what Israelis call ‘rosh gadol’ – or ‘smart thinking’ to thwart those who came to demonize Israel.
There is only one square in front of the UN in Geneva and we booked it for the whole week. There is only one youth hostel, one major conference center, and we booked it. We booked them well in advance so when the anti Israel, anti Western activists came to town to support Iran and attack Jews, they couldn’t find a conference center, a square, or a place to stay. The anti-Israel activists who were there said that (despite the fact that Israel didn’t participate in the conference), Geneva looked like ‘occupied Zionist territory’. This was a major Zionist victory. That was a week where the true victims of HR abuses were able to have their say and the imposters were frustrated. It’s easy to see this victory meant a lot to Neuer. Chalk one up for the Jews.
What’s becoming very clear is that Israel functions as the perfect scapegoat for the world’s worst human rights abusers. Everyone knows the best defense is a good offense and the nations of the UNHRC are completely aware that Israel is not a serial abuser of human rights—however, by making so much of the UNHRC about Israel, they leave no room or time for criticism of other nations. This
strategy has worked for four decades and it is only growing stronger. UN Watch is the only organization that calls these countries out and highlights the very real and systematic human rights that they perpetrate
The greatest victims of this behavior are not Israel and her people, but the people of those regimes who point the spotlight on Israel and continue to abuse their own people in the shadows. They divert world compassion and efforts towards the created war on Israel and keep it away from themselves.
I have to understand, so ask, How does this happen? How can this occur so blatantly in the United Nations? It seems impossible to believe.
Many people, especially in Europe, imagine that the UNHRC is a council of wise sages, chosen for their adherence to logic, truth, and morality. But the reality is that the council is a political body made up of 47 countries, elected by other countries. Out of the 193 UN member states, 120 of them belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, which is an anti-Western alliance. The current Chair is Iran, and is often Cuba or Venezuela. So you get 120 countries who will automatically vote for dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, China, or Cuba, to be on the UNHRC.
In addition, they bargain using oil or sovereign wealth funds—Qatar has billions of dollars. They go to countries and say vote for us. We will give you oil, investments and votes. The UN works according to vote trading- you vote for me and I vote for you.
I found proof of this in the Saudi Arabian records. The fundamentalist monarchy of Saudi Arabia wrote to the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin and said: we hereby agree to vote for you in the HRC and you will vote for us —it’s on their letterhead.
There are democracies on the UNHRC who should be rallying against this, but often they go along to get along. In fact, we revealed that Saudi Arabia and Britain agreed to vote for one another. We know that Britain approached Saudi Arabia to get their vote and it seems they may have promised to vote for them in exchange.
At what level does this happen? Just the representatives?
At the highest levels. The Foreign Minister would know about it, the PM might know about it. In fact PM Cameron was asked about it and eventually effectively admitted that they voted for the Saudis, claiming they needed a security relationship with them to help combat terrorism.
Why is the UN a big deal? Why does it matter?
Ben Gurion is reported to have said “oom shmoom”— (Oom is the shorthand for United Nations in Hebrew), but the reality is that the UN is the single most important repository of international legitimacy. It affects the hearts and minds of millions of citizens around the world. UN decisions are translated into every language and are spread around the world. They affect the reporting of journalists, the decisions of foreign ministries who have UN decisions on their shelves. Students, lawyers, HR groups and the wider public, like it or not the UN influences hundreds of millions around the world and if we don’t like what is happening we cannot ignore it, we need to respond.
Should Israel just leave the UN?
There is no running away from it. You can leave the UN and then you will encounter the same in FIFA- the football association. Are you going to run away from FIFA? Israel fought very hard to get her seat in the UN – people remember the vote to have a Jewish state but they don’t remember that there was another fight to become a member and Israel lost the first vote. Abba Eban battled eloquently and valiantly for Israel’s seat. If you want to be an independent and sovereign country- one of the signs of that is a seat at the UN. This is why the Palestinians want that seat. There is no magic solution to this, just as there hasn’t been a magic solution for the Jewish people for thousands of years, but standing up and fighting against demonization of Israel has to happen.
I ask what Hillel sees in five to ten years from now for Israel at the UN.
The UN reflects the world. If there continue to be harsh dictatorships, the UN will reflect that and if there is hatred for Israel and Jews the UN will reflect that too. If we see changes in the world and countries becoming more democratic as we just saw in Burma and Argentina, we can expect better at the United Nations.
What can we do to help?
Get informed. UNWatch produces information on a regular basis. Sign up to our newsletter and get the latest information. Then act as you can. In the last session, a special six year post needed to be filled — for a “rapporteur” on Palestine, one whose job is to investigate “Israel’s violation of the principles and basis of international law.” The position requires impartiality. It has enormous influence and previous individuals who held that post used it to try and boycott Israel.
The UN committee recommended Penny Green, an academic in the UK who accuses Israel of apartheid, repeatedly calls to boycott Israel, and through her organization accused Israel of genocide. We launched a major campaign and exposed her extreme bias.
We sent a petition to the head of the commission and world leaders and are happy to say that she was not chosen. The person appointed instead of Penny is biased but not as biased as she. The UNWatch led campaign with the help of people around the world who protested in various ways was responsible for eliminating a terribly biased person from an extremely influential position.
Last year, William Schabas was the head of the commission of inquiry on Gaza. We exposed the fact that he was an incredibly biased activist for the Palestinians. Eventually it was revealed that he did legal work for the PLO and he had to resign. We also led the campaign to expose Richard Falk who was the UN Palestine investigator for six years. We showed that he was a 9/11 conspiracy theorist- Ban Ki Moon condemned him- that never happens.
Sign petitions – they have an effect. Spread the word on social media, write letters to the editor, write to your member of parliament or congress. Your voice is important. Oh, and donate to UN Watch. They are fighting the good fight, for all of us.
First printed in The Jerusalem Post, In Jerusalem, April 15