Analysis and Commentary from UN Watch in Geneva
August 10, 2009 — Issue 199
Following is an open letter by UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer to Mrs. Mary Robinson, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the 2001 Durban conference, who is set to receive the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom this week.
Letter to Mrs. Mary Robinson
Dear Mrs. Robinson,
Recent statements by you and your defenders, amid the growing opposition to your receipt this Wednesday of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, require a response.
According to the organization Physicians for Human Rights—for whom you recently worked on a report together with one of its board members, Richard Goldstone—you are being “vilified” by “false accusations.”
In your own words, “certain elements” of the Jewish community—those opposed to your selection—are subjecting you to “bullying.”
Mrs. Robinson, let’s be honest: no one has bullied you, and you are not being vilified by false accusations.
Instead, facts were presented and issues raised concerning your 1997-2002 tenure as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights—by mainstream Jewish organizations as well as by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle—which question the integrity of your actions on the Middle East, most famously during the lead-up to that dark moment in history known as the Durban conference.
Hurling ad hominem epithets won’t make these facts go away. Nor will misrepresenting your critics’ arguments and then purporting to refute them, which is what both you and your defenders have been doing.
If you are to receive this medal, the American people are entitled to know precisely what the issues are.
I. Your Role at Durban
Let us begin with Durban, the U.N.’s 2001 world conference against racism, which you presided over as Secretary-General, and then consider your overall tenure as U.N. rights chief.
As you know, the Durban conference degenerated into an unprecedented international platform for anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli hatred, with massive rallies in the streets of Durban organized by Palestinian and fundamentalist Arab groups. One widely distributed flyer showed a photograph of Hitler and the question “What if I had won?” The answer: “There would be no Israel.”
The late Tom Lantos, founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and a respected defender of human rights for all, was a U.S. delegate to the conference. “Having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust first hand,” he said, “this was the most sickening and unabashed display of hate for Jews I have seen since the Nazi period.”
Shortly after the conference, Lantos published an essay in the Fletcher Forum for World Affairs that amounts to a stinging indictment of your role in the events leading up to the conference, including at the fateful preparatory meetings in Tehran and Geneva, with your acts of omission and commission described as “a major contributing factor to the debacle in Durban.”
This article is the primary source cited by your critics. If its author had been a hawkish unilateralist, you could have easily dismissed him as just another “bully.” But Tom Lantos was a Democrat, a firm believer in vital multilateral institutions, and a true friend—meaning never an uncritical one—of the United Nations.
And so you have no choice but to address his charges. Your main defense, as reported in the Irish Times, is that Lantos “misunderstood” your role.
“The conference was run by the member states, particularly by South Africa as the chair,” you said. “So all key meetings and all decisions at the official level were made by governments and I wasn’t present when they were arguing about whether anti-Semitic language which was in brackets should be included. I just wasn’t there.”
You weren’t there, Mrs. Robinson? That’s odd, because in the same breath, you proceeded to claim credit for the removal of these proposals: “But I did finally, after the United States and Israel had withdrawn, persuade South Africa to take this language out immediately and to continue with the conference.” It sounds like you want to have your cake and eat it, too.
In attempting to defend the final text, you say that Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister at the time, “welcomed” it. This is a deliberately misleading half-truth, put to frequent use this year by the apologists for Durban II.
The facts tell another story. On September 4, 2001, after he instructed his delegation to walk out of the conference, Peres described the gathering in Durban as “a farce” where “human rights were defeated,” and as a “court of mockery of justice.”
At the same briefing, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior—a spiritual leader known for his advocacy of pluralism, liberalism and human rights protections for Israel's minorities—described the Durban draft as “the most anti-Semitic official document put on any table in any official conference since World War II.” Yet you omit to mention any of this.
Yes, a few days later, when the final text emerged, Peres cheered the removal of the worst proposals, a direct result of the diplomatic pressure created by the joint U.S. and Israeli walkout that you continue to condemn. At the same time, his legal adviser, Alan Baker, made clear that Israel hardly gave its blessing to the outcome: “The fact that the Palestinians succeeded in inserting partisan and specific statements concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a declaration of a conference on racism is something that never should have happened.”
Sure enough, when the declaration came before the U.N. General Assembly in March 2002, Peres instructed the Israeli representative to join the U.S. and vote against it. Some endorsement.
Yet even if your account were true, it is, in the end, immaterial to Lantos’ 22-page indictment, only a small fraction of which discusses your role at the final conference. Most of it, as you know, addresses what you did—and failed to do—during the lead-up.
Lantos never denied that at Durban you stood up to condemn anti-Semitic pamphlets distributed by the Arab Lawyers Union, or that you rejected the viciously anti-Israel NGO declaration.
Rather, citing one instance after another, he made a compelling case that throughout the year of lead-up meetings you continuously fanned the flames of anti-Israel prejudice, only to cry “Fire!” once they rose up into a great conflagration.
I urge you to respond to Lantos’ detailed charges concerning your actions during three key moments, in Tehran, Geneva, and Durban:
1. That You Condoned the Tehran Hatred of February 2001
In February 2001, when the Tehran preparatory meeting of Asian states adopted a text condemning only one country—demonizing Israel as a country guilty of a “new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity,” and calling Zionism a “racist and violent movement based on racist and discriminatory ideas”— your response was to congratulate the Tehran delegates for their “high degree of consensus.”
When asked about the inflammatory rhetoric at a news conference, you replied: “The situation in the Palestinian occupied territories was brought up at the meeting and it is reflected in the final Declaration.” You went on to add that a “striking feature” of the meeting was the “emphasis on dialogue between civilizations.” That was it. No outrage. No criticism. No moral leadership.
Your comments, wrote Lantos, “represented a pivotal moment in the evolution of the World Conference Against Racism. By appearing to condone the Asian conference’s efforts to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the agenda of the World Conference, [Mary Robinson] betrayed its intentions and emboldened those intent on using the conference for their own political purposes. From that moment the conference began to take a dangerous trajectory that became ever more difficult to correct."
In other words, at the moment when the Islamic states injected the toxic language that would eventually poison the entire Durban process, your actions encouraged it.
Mrs. Robinson, will you respond to this charge?
2. That You Opposed the U.S. at the Geneva Pre-Conference of August 2001
Lantos detailed your actions during the emergency Geneva meeting of August 2001, a last-minute attempt to stave off the impending disaster. “Mrs. Robinson’s intervention with the assembled delegates later in the same day left our delegation deeply shocked and saddened. In her remarks, she advocated precisely the opposite course to the one Secretary [Colin] Powell and I had urged her to take. Namely, she refused to reject the twisted notion that the wrong done to the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East. Instead, she discussed ‘the historical wounds of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust on the one hand, and…the accumulated wounds of displacement and military occupation on the other.’ Thus, instead of condemning the attempt to usurp the conference, she legitimized it.”
“Instead of insisting that it was inappropriate to discuss a specific political conflict in the context of a World Conference on Racism, she spoke of the ‘need to resolve protracted conflict and occupation, claims of inequality, violence and terrorism, and a deteriorating situation on the ground.’ Robinson was prepared to delve into the arcana of a single territorial conflict at the exclusion of all others and at the expense of the conference’s greater goals. Robinson’s intervention broke all momentum that the U.S. had developed. The Arab countries immediately seized on these statements as a clear indication that the tide had turned again in their favor, dropped all talk of compromise, and began pressing for the continuation of the Middle East discussion in Durban.”
Mrs. Robinson, will you respond to this charge?
3. That You Opposed the U.S. at the Durban Endgame in September 2001
Finally, at the endgame in Durban, Lantos documents your counter-productive role: “As the U.S. pressed its case, Robinson seemed to be working to stymie our efforts. In her public and private statements, as was the case in Geneva, she insisted that the conference had to recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people. In a meeting on Sunday, September 2, with [U.S.] Ambassador Southwick, she lashed out at him, characterizing the U.S. threat to pull out if the Norwegian language was not accepted as ‘warped, strange and undemocratic.’”
“In a meeting I had with Commissioner Robinson later that same day… [I] told her that the U.S. government was extremely displeased with the way she had handled the conference, and we indicated that we held her responsible for her actions that contributed to its failure.”
Mrs. Robinson, will you respond to this charge? The American people are entitled to answers to the specific allegations, not to straw man arguments.
The American people are entitled to answers to the specific allegations, not to straw man arguments.
Let’s face it: Tom Lantos never “misunderstood” your role. Known as “Mr. Human Rights,” he was a veteran lawmaker on U.N. affairs who directly engaged with you on the issues in Washington, Geneva, and Durban. He knew exactly what measures of influence and responsibility you exercised over the process as Secretary-General, and it was on that nuanced basis that he denounced your record.
Leadership means taking responsibility. During the march to Durban you could have confronted the purveyors of anti-Israel hatred from the start. Instead, you chose to egg them on, only to have it explode in your face—by which time your protestations were simply too little and too late. You may not have been the chief culprit of the Durban debacle, but you will always be its preeminent symbol.
II. Your Role as High Commissioner
But the concerns about your actions on the Middle East are not limited to Durban. They extend to your entire 5-year tenure as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Here again, you invoke the same defense: Your critics “misunderstand” what your role was, failing to appreciate the difference between the former Commission on Human Rights, a body of 53 U.N. member states, and your own role as the U.N.’s top human rights official.
To be sure, some of your critics, while getting the big picture right, have helped you make this case by conflating your former office with that of the Commission and its resolutions condoning Palestinian terrorism.
I will be the first to defend you on this point: you cannot be held responsible for texts that you neither initiated nor voted upon.
The errors of a few, however, do not detract from the numerous, genuine and well-grounded concerns cited over the years by UN Watch and others.
When the Arab and Islamic blocs, supported by an automatic majority of countries like China, Russia, and Cuba, diverted the world’s highest human rights body from its mission—ignoring millions of human rights victims in 191 countries in order to target Israel—you could have taken them on.
Unlike the U.S. president’s powers vis-à-vis Congress, you had no power to veto the Commission’s enactments. But you held the moral pulpit of the U.N. human rights system and could have set a different tone for Geneva. Unlike the political body, you were required to be impartial, objective, and non-selective.
Regrettably, however, when it came to Israel, you effectively encouraged the Commission’s anti-Israel obsession—an obsession that epitomized the politicization and selectivity that ultimately doomed the now-defunct body.
Examples abound. To name but a small portion:
- On May 15, 1998, as we reported, you legitimized Palestinian demonstrators hurling bricks, rocks and Molotov cocktails as a “peaceful assembly.”In September 2000, we protested your breach of impartiality and integrity when you named Ms. Mona Rishmawi, notorious for having written articles comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, as your senior advisor. She continues to serve at the office of the High Commissioner.
- In November 2000, when you led a fact-finding mission with the cooperation of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, we noted your distinct policy of listening to the Palestinians, while asking hard questions only of the Israelis.
- The subsequent report that you published was found by UN Watch to have denounced Israeli actions without considering their cause and context, including self-defense from armed attacks, and to have presumed Israel to be the aggressor.
- In December 2001, as documented by UN Watch, you gave special support to an extremist Palestinian demonstration held on the sidelines of a gathering of Geneva Convention signatories that was convened to condemn Israel.
- At the Commission’s April 2002 special session against Israel, your speech gave more credence to Palestinian propaganda than to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had witnessed Palestinian unloading of an explosive suicide belt from an ambulance.
Unfortunately, whenever we met with you in Geneva to raise such concerns, you rejected them out of hand.
Last week, when Jean Ziegler was elected vice-chair of the Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee, we were reminded of your legacy. In the year 2000, it was you who invited Ziegler—the 1989 co-founder of the Moammar Qaddafi Human Rights Prize—to become a U.N. human rights expert. He has since distinguished himself as the most anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israel U.N. official in the history of the organization, cynically abusing his mandate.
Did your actions, however selective, at least help Palestinians? No. Your support of one-sided U.N. measures only encouraged Palestinian extremists, deterred Israelis from trusting international institutions, and promoted the futile path of feel-good unilateral censure, instead of the necessary path of dialogue and reconciliation.
Mrs. Robinson, last week you said that when it came to the Middle East, you acted “purely in a principled, human rights way with no bias, which I am incapable of.”
The evidence above, however, shows that you were not only capable, but all too willing.
I look forward to your response, which we offer to publish in its entirety.
Hillel C. Neuer