The World’s Conscience or Reflection?

I was planning to write something on flash-mobs and bus ads next, but then again I had also planned to have been on a plane back home two days ago before 12-18 inches of snow decided to intervene.

With the latter problem solved, I’m going to postpone mobs and busses for one more entry in order to take part in an increasingly interesting conversation started in the comments section of previous postings.

I mentioned recently that someone who took part in a BDS project in California last Spring has been asking some serious questions and making some important points, most recently with regard to how Israel’s supporters can justify Israel’s actions, given the wide condemnations that routinely pour out from international bodies (such as the United Nations and International Court of Justice) directed at the Jewish state.

“Can the whole world be wrong?” was a question former UN leader Kofi Annan asked years ago when Israel challenged the legitimacy of some of the actions of the body Annan led. And this question rings out today, not just from partisans, but also from idealists who greatly desire there to exist an international system to check the excesses of the nation state and eventually (they, like many, hope) will lead to a global government which rules by international law.

Now one commenter with experience in international legal matters made an equally valid point that votes taken at organizations like the UN bear little resemblance to votes taken within various democratic parliaments upon which the UN General Assembly and other bodies were modeled. Most notably, the “voters” in the General Assembly are not elected leaders responsible and answerable to a particular constituency, but nation-states themselves. And if a majority of those nation states are not free or democratic, then the majority of votes taken within these world bodies are cast by the ruling class of each country, with no distinction between a vote by a democracy, a dictatorship or something in between.

This leaves open the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that votes to condemn Israel – far from representing the planet’s conscience – actually represent the political decisions of nation states, i.e., the very national power that international law was created to limit. So does the UN spend a majority of its energy condemning just one member (Israel) because Israel is the greatest human rights abuser on the planet? Or does a UN focus on Israel instead of far greater human rights abusers and occupiers (such as Syria and China) in order to serve the needs of the latter at the expense of not just Israel but of the entire international law/human-rights enterprise?

Here we come to a much deeper challenge for those who truly believe that international law overseen by international bodies (the UN, NGOs) and a global court should be entrusted with more responsibility than they have today. For what if the condemnation of Israel (easy to achieve in any of these organizations thanks to the numerousness of Israel’s foes) is actually the means whereby corrupt or vicious nation states are pushing their nation’s interests at the expense of other nations and of the global order itself?

If a powerful nation such as China, or nations that are part of huge voting blocs such as Syria can ensure that they are never subject to serious scrutiny by the human rights community or international agencies by insisting that Israel be the Alpha and Omega of for condemnation by the “international community,” then what has this international community become beyond a tool for tyranny, yet one additional method for wealthy and powerful states to get their way?

In other words, those who have high hopes for some new global order are particularly obliged to examine the way these institutions have actually behaved over the years (rather than judge groups like the UN and ICJ based on their theoretical perfection), especially with regard to the question of whether hugely lopsided attacks on one country represent international justice or the monumental corruption of everything international justice is supposed to stand for.

9 thoughts on “The World’s Conscience or Reflection?”

  1. What a great post, thank you!

    I'd like to offer a few thoughts I had on reading it:

    1. Israel is not being singled out & picked on, as far as I can tell. There are lots of complex politics happening all the time within the realm of international bodies.

    Like the ongoing drama with the UN Security Council trying to censure North Korea, and China blocking it (not a bad analogy to Israel/U.S. dynamic). Or the recent resolution condemning Iran for human rights violations & the U.S. imposing sanctions for the same (which is leading to all sorts of excited rhetoric on both sides).

    2. I've never seen any studies quantifying the correlation between UN representation and their would-be 'constituency', so I can't speak to that, but in my own experience it's been very interesting just how critical (and well-informed) people outside the U.S. really are of Israel's actions. Living in Europe and Asia was definitely an eye-opener in that regard.

    But again, it doesn't seem to be a case of a grand conspiracy against Israel. The same sort of World Opinion holds for Burma, North Korea and China's actions in Tibet.

    3. No institution is perfect, and international institutions are going to have to be refined as we move toward global decision making based on consensus. It's still really new territory and there is much to be learned.

  2. Sandy – Regarding your first two points, the lopsided and unbalanced way organizations like the UN and ICJ focus on Israel cannot be balanced by the fact that they also focus attention (albeit far less attention) on other human rights abusers. If more than half of the human rights condemnations coming out of the UN are directed at Israel (which they are), then either Israel must be the greatest human rights abuser on the planet (which is clearly not the case) or the machinery within these international organizations has been subverted to turn them into tools of national statecraft with powerful countries and national blocs turning these institutions to their advantage by focusing the human rights spotlight onto their enemies and off of themselves.

    This is highly relevant to your third point since the notion that the world is evolving towards some type of global governance is predicated on the assumption that global institutions (the UN, world court, NGOs) can behave more justly than the nation states they would be replacing.

    But keep in mind that the nation state itself is a relatively new invention and the democratic nation state newer still. And despite their many faults, they are clearly better at creating islands where the rule of law can take root than the institutions which they replaced (the polis/city-state, kingdom or empire).

    If you look at the bloody 20th century, you could make the argument that WWI was the ultimate failure of the nation state to protect the peace and its citizens. But you could also make the argument that the even bloodier conflicts of the century (WWII and the conflicts related to the Cold War) were triggered by ideologies that wanted to destroy the nation state and replace it with an earlier (albeit fantasy version) of empires (the Nazis, Al Quadi) or destroy the national system entirely through an act of world revolution (Marx).

    So global governance is neither guaranteed as an endpoint, nor guaranteed as a form of progress if we get there. Which is why the notion that we need to tolerate a certain amount of Israeli eggs being broken in order to create this particular omelet needs to be challenged at every turn given that such an attitude will either sabotage attempts to create a truly trustworthy global rule of law, or will create a global order that neither you, I nor anyone who cares for others would want to live under.

  3. Once again a wall has been built (no pun intended) disallowing anyone from criticizing Israel. The story goes something like this: The majority of the world's nations are not democratic, there are worse abusers of human rights than Israel, the UN is corrupt, therefore any and all resolutions against Israel are not legitimate and intended to shield powerful/corrupt nations. Your comments about the UN are huge generalizations and unfortunately not all consistent with the facts. There have been many legitimate UNSC resolutions criticizing Israel that have been voted by “free and democratic” nations. The list is too long to name. It is not fair to outright dismiss the UN without discussing specific resolutions and their respective votes. And yes I am sure there have been resolutions criticizing Israel at the UN that are not legitimate. Nobody and no institution is perfect. The UN has done a lot of good work through the years. Could the disproportionate number of resolutions against Israel have something to do with the fact that the I/P conflict is one of the longest running conflicts of our time? Just a thought.

    As far as I can tell, most if not all the “free and democratic” nations of the world are highly critical of Israel's behavior, and this has only increased since the formation of Netanyahu's coalition government. This point was clearly articulated by Sandy in one of her comments. Israel and her supporters (including myself) cannot hide behind “the UN is corrupt” script to avoid meaningful discussions .

    This tactic is remarkably similar to what happens here in the US. As soon as someone or some institution criticizes Israel, the pro Israel lobby goes in high gear, denounces/delegitimizes the message and the messenger and shortly thereafter the US Congress passes yet another bill that reaffirms US's support for Israel “our friend and only democracy in the region”. This was also raised by Sandy when she stated “I don't like that even when a given administration (e.g. the current one) is willing to formally state that Israel's actions are directly undermining the peace process, they won't actually do anything about it”. In my opinion Obama will not do anything about Israel because the political costs are too high for him. The US Congress has already put him on notice after his insistence that Israel stop settlement construction.

    And how about human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch? Are they also illegitimate and corrupt organizations because they criticize Israel? And B'Tselem?

    To stonewall any criticism of Israel will only reinforce the opinion that Israel is above the law and will unfortunately strengthen the BDS movement.

  4. Jon,

    Clearly those that get their news from MSM (main stream media) have no idea what is really going on in the UN.

    Many of us, in our youth, me included, believed in the ideal of the UN. Because we were not paying attention, we defended the UN without knowing the facts.

    Now that I have grown up, I get my information from alternative news sources that are doing the job that MSM should be doing. I now know that the majority of nations in the UN are clearly against democracy and everything it stands for. The majority of nations in the UN practice some form of shariah law and have no connection with Western values.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that these countries will go to great lengths to undermine democracy starting with Israel. It is not a coincidence that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and the only country to incur so much Middle Eastern, UN wrath.

    Roger Simon, writing for Pajamas Media said:

    ‘By 1992 alone there were 65 resolutions concerning Israel. By January 2009, this number rose to 225. All these resolutions are largely led by Islamic states that are basically judenrein, although many of them had substantial Jewish populations in the past.’

    For those of you that would like to learn more, read his article. You will find that what Jon has stated can be proven from a myriad of sources.

    SarahSue

    http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerlsimon/2010/12/26/durban-iii-is-it-time-for-the-us-to-defund-the-un/?singlepage=true

  5. Speaking of the wall …

    A 36 year old palestinian women dies after being exposed to tear gas in the WB village of Bil'in. She was demonstrating against the wall that runs through Palestinian land in this area. In 2007 israel's supreme court ruled against the wall in Bil'in, but the IDF has yet to act on this ruling.

  6. At around noon Tuesday, August 3, 2010, Israeli forces were cutting down small trees near Kibbutz Misgav Am on the Israeli of the border. “Their officers were watching the work from a forward command post 200-300 meters behind the border when all of a sudden Lebanese forces suddenly started shooting without any sort of provocation.”

    The Israeli officer killed in the clashes was 45-year-old Lt. Col. Dov Harari, from Netanya, who was a reserves battalion commander in the engineering corps. The 45-year-old Lieutenant Colonel, was a father of four.

    Fred, the difference between my story and yours, is that mine is true and yours is not.

    SarahSue

  7. Dear Anonymous – You seem a bit confused over just who is and is not willing to accept criticism. Given the asymmetry of the situation (there are not, after all, 30-50 Jewish nations that drag their political foes before the bar at the UN day-after-day), it is Israel’s critics that have insisted that a majority of human rights talk on the planet focus on their pet peeve, to the exclusion of nearly every other suffering man, woman and child on the planet.

    And in this asymmetrical form of warfare masquerading as human rights work, it is people like you (whose political cause has been handed a megaphone by some of the world’s wealthiest states, who are also the planet’s worst human rights abusers) who insist that any criticism of your accusations are illegitimate.

    Thus my pointing out that UN decisions are based on grubby political power plays and thus cannot be taken as representing the conscience of the world are dismissed as “changing the subject” from your pet peeves, and the use of our free-speech rights to criticize what you have to say is presented as some kind of plot to stifle debate.

    I can understand the desire to use pre-emptive accusations of muzzling to try to get your political opponents to question their right to a voice in this debate (beyond the role you have assigned us as defendants with Israel’s critics acting as both prosecutor and judge). But as I’ve noted before, you’ve played this dual role for decades now, and it certainly hasn’t done anyone any good in all that time (least of which the Palestinians whose well-being you claim to care about).

    Now that we’re in the seventh decade of this dispute, you are going to have to sit back and listen for a change, not simply assume you have the floor until the sun goes supernova. And if the only role you wish to play in this discussion includes your asking questions but never answering them, don’t be surprised when those of us who actually care about issues like human rights and free speech decide to stop taking you seriously.

  8. I appreciate your frustration, given that the framework within which you operate means that anyone who does not accept your premises and conclusions unconditionally has not proposed a counter argument (or is guilty of a tirade, ad homonym attack or other some such device).

    Throughout the comments section in this entry and elsewhere, I have made it clear that:

    (1) The Arab-Israeli dispute is just that, the Arab-Israeli (not the Palestinian-Israeli) dispute and that dysfunctional politics in the Arab world is the primary reason why there is a Palestinian problem in the first place (not settlements, not Netenyahu, but dysfunctional national politics within and between Israel’s neighbors).

    (2) That these nations use their wealth, power and influence to manipulate organizations like the United Nations (and others) to condemn their political enemy (Israel) while preventing them from applying similar scrutiny to themselves. Thus, results of such political pressure and gamesmanship can be described in a lot of ways, but not as representing the conscience of the planet

    Like most of Israel’s critics, you seem to have decided that because Israel (and its supporters) are willing to accept the fact that Israel does bear some responsibility and is ready to accept valid criticism that it is completely guilty of everything and must be punished accordingly. Similarly, since the Palestinians and their enablers will never accept responsibility for anything ever, they are eternally off the hook.

    This is the dynamic that has allowed you to think that six decades in the prosecutor’s bench is not enough and that you should be allowed to present your side of the story without criticism forever. But as I have pointed out, even if you were granted the role you demand (which ain’t going to happen – not any longer) you are simply contributing to, rather than solving, the problems you claim you want to end.

    So if you are looking to perpetuate the conflict, by all means continue to contribute to efforts to place all blame on one party and one party alone at the expense of dealing with the actual problems will need to get solved if peace is ever to get onto the agenda of the region.

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