Earlier this month, the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) commemorated the 70th anniversary since its founding meeting in 1946. That meeting was held not in the city most associated with the institution, New York, but in London, a city still recovering at the time from heavy Nazi bombardment. Anniversaries are a good time to reflect and analyze about the past, and to look forward to the future. Unfortunately, when it comes to the UNGA, the list of shortcomings is long, while accomplishments are few.
At the outset, it should be noted that the General Assembly played a role in the independence of the State of Israel. The British relinquished to the U.N. the decision of what to do with the British Mandate over pre-state Israel after rising tensions. The UNGA passed a resolution in November1947 that the land should be partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish government) accepted the partition and declared independence for the State of Israel. The Arabs rejected the plan and launched a failed war of annihilation against the fledgling Jewish state. Zionism did not need the U.N. to create a state (indeed, there was already the Yishuv, a pre-state government, and the Haganah, a pre-state army, to create and defend the Jewish state), but the legitimacy granted by the community of nations approving of Jewish self-determination in our ancient homeland was important. Israel was admitted as a U.N. member state in 1949, following approval by the Security Council and General Assembly.
After that point, however, the relationship soured. By the 1960s and 1970s, the U.N. General Assembly became an intensely hostile venue for Israel and the Jewish people. The low-point was the “Zionism is Racism” resolution (see prior blog post on this resolution). The UNGA also created during this period a set of Palestinian propaganda units housed within the U.N. bureaucracy: the “Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People” and the “Division for Palestinian Rights.” These units, whose combined yearly budget is over $6 million, continue to be active participants in the global Palestinian propaganda campaign against Israel from within U.N. Headquarters to this day. In the 1980s the Arab states, along with some Third World dictatorships and Soviet states, tried, unsuccessfully, to remove Israel from the General Assembly.
The 1990s saw the repeal of the “Zionism=Racism” resolution (one of the few resolutions ever to be rescinded) after concerted effort by Israel, the United States., other allies and B’nai B’rith and the Jewish community. Israel’s diplomatic horizons expanded dramatically in the 1990s, thanks in part to the end of the Cold War and the peace process. At the U.N., however, the only tangible benefit was the repeal of the patently absurd “Zionism=Racism” resolution. The number of annual biased resolutions attacking Israel did not decrease. For perspective—there are now around 20 resolutions each year that condemn Israel. A handful of other states (and only the most egregious ones—Iran, Sudan, Syria, North Korea) will be condemned by one resolution apiece.
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The General Assembly has called Emergency Special Sessions to discuss urgent issues relating to peace and security only 10 times. Six of these 10 sessions have been called on issues relating to the Middle East. In 1997, the UNGA called the Tenth Emergency Special Session (to condemn Israel for building in Jerusalem), and then decided to suspend the session so that it could be re-opened later. In the years since, it has been re-opened 13 times to issue one-sided condemnations of Israel for counter-terrorism activities during an onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings in the early 2000s and rocket attacks. Needless to say, the Palestinian violence that necessitated measures such as Israel’s security barrier and counter-terrorism operations was routinely ignored.
The situation at the UNGA in the last 10 years is very serious, but not utterly bleak. The General Assembly passed, 60 years after the fact, resolutions on Holocaust remembrance and Holocaust denial, and created a program within the United Nations to educate about the Holocaust throughout the world. The assembly also passed, by wide margins, for the first time two Israeli-initiated resolutions on agricultural technology and entrepreneurship. A series of Israeli diplomats have also been elected by their peers to important positions at the General Assembly, a recognition that diplomats recognize that Israel has contributions to make at the U.N. beyond the conflict.
Overall, however, the persistent anti-Israel obsession continues to plague the General Assembly, which radiates outwards throughout the U.N. system since the assembly controls the budgeting and prioritization of issues at the U.N. The UNGA also is the parent body of the discredited Human Rights Council, and conducts elections for seats at the Human Rights Council, Security Council and other bodies. General Assembly resolutions are non-binding and do not carry significant weight in international law when compared to Security Council resolutions, but we must not fall into the trap of believing that because of this that the UNGA is completely irrelevant.
The UNGA gives those who are hostile to the existence of the State of Israel a global platform from which they try to legitimize their hateful bigotry. Israel and other democracies engaged in counter-terrorism efforts will continue to feel negative effects from the endemic bias and corruption of the General Assembly until the many nations who are not hopelessly anti-Israel, but vote against Israel in order to avoid making waves in the powerful regional groups, stand up and refuse to take part in the relentless campaign against Israel at the UNGA.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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