Foreign Policy Blogs

The True Bias Of The United Nations

Per Obama’s proclamation last week, yesterday was United Nations Day.  So I’ll take the opportunity to respond to fellow blogger, Ben Moscovitch, of FPA’s Israel blog, who wrote: “does that moniker then also make it anti-Israel day”?  Moscovitch, like many others, misreads the nature of the UN’s bias.

Moscovitch criticizes the UN because it “considers the votes of anti-democratic and human rights-violating countries as equivalent to freedom-loving nations.”  This is true, but is actually a good thing, as it upholds a fundamental principle of the organization, “the sovereign equality of all its Members,” as stated in Article 2 of the UN Charter.  Thus, in the General Assembly, for example, each Member gets one vote, regardless of the Member state’s internal character and behavior regarding human rights.  But the General Assembly does not actually have much power.  It can only pass resolutions that “make recommendations,” per Article 10 of the UN Charter.  The UN Security Council, on the other hand, is a much more powerful body.  As Article 25 states, “Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.”  In other words, the Security Council, unlike the General Assembly, can pass binding resolutions.  Also unlike the General Assembly, in the Security Council, each member’s vote does not count equally, for the Security Council’s five permanent members (P5) have veto power.  Thus, by design and in practice, the UN is actually biased in favor of the victors of World War II, who make up the P5.  This benefits Israel, for the U.S., as a P5 member, has repeatedly used its veto power to strike down resolutions critical of Israel.

But Moscovitch argues that the UN, as a whole, is biased toward Israel and focuses on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), also a weak UN body, at least relative to the Security Council.  Like the General Assembly, the UNHRC’s mandate is limited to making recommendations.  And if we look at the recommendations the UNHRC has thus far made, an anti-Israel bias is difficult to see.  Take the Goldstone Report, which Moscovitch offers as a primary example of his point.  Yes, many of the Goldstone Report’s recommendations are directed toward Israel.  But many of its recommendations are directed toward the other side.  Here are some of them:

The Mission recommends that Palestinian armed groups undertake forthwith to respect international humanitarian law, in particular by renouncing attacks on Israeli civilians and civilian objects, and take all feasible precautionary measures to avoid harm to Palestinian civilians during hostilities.


The Mission recommends that Palestinian armed groups who hold Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in detention release him on humanitarian grounds. Pending such release they should recognize his status as prisoner of war, treat him as such, and allow him ICRC visits.


The Mission recommends that the Palestinian Authority issue clear instructions to security forces under its command to abide by human rights norms as enshrined in the Palestinian Basic Law and international instruments; ensure prompt and independent investigation of all allegations of serious human rights violations by security forces under its control; and end resort to military justice to deal with cases involving civilians.


The Mission recommends that the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza authorities release without delay all political detainees currently in their power and refrain from further arrests on political grounds and in violation of international human rights law.


The Mission recommends that the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza authorities continue to enable the free and independent operation of Palestinian non-governmental organizations, including human rights organizations, and of the Independent Commission on Human Rights

That’s not to say that the UNHRC is an objective organization.  It is, as has been said of the Security Council, “a political organ which acts for political reasons,” but again, unlike the Security Council, it lacks true power.  And to the extent that the UNHRC does have a selectivity problem, I side with Human Rights Watch in thinking that the problem is not that the UNHRC has investigated Israel, but rather that it has refrained from doing so for other countries.

Moscovitch offers as additional examples the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 and the Durban Review Conference in 2009.  However, both of these examples actually prove the opposite of his point.  The U.S. and Israel withdrew from the 2001 conference due to language in the conference’s draft declaration equating Zionism with racism.  But the delegates to the conference voted the language out of the final declaration, so this is actually an example in which the “one country, one vote” policy worked in Israel’s favor.  At the 2009 conference, some delegates, including Ahmadinejad, criticized Israel for racism, but once again, no such language made its way into the final document.  As France’s foreign minister said of Ahmadinejad’s attacks, “The text was adopted, therefore he has failed.”

Moscovitch also brings up the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), stating that its facilities are “allegedly being used as safe havens for terrorists when Israel attacks.”  If he’s talking about the incident during Operation Cast Lead in which the IDF initiated an attack that struck an UNRWA school in response to gun fire, Israeli military officials admitted that no gunfire originated from the school and that the building itself was never the attack’s target.  Though I’m sure if Moscovitch has something else in mind, and is reading this, he will let me know.

But I’m not convinced of the UN’s anti-Israel bias, and I believe if one looks at the UN as a whole, one finds that the organization benefits Israel, and if anything, is biased in favor of it.