Montreal-born Hillel Neuer walks softly, but carries a big microphone. Words are his currency, and as executive director of Geneva-based UN Watch, he brings them to bear against the dictatorships that flout humanitarian law but who wrap themselves in the protective cloaks of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. In 2013, he called those delegates, to their face, “the despots who run this council.” Possessing four degrees, including one in comparative constitutional law from Hebrew University, he is also a strong advocate for fair and equal treatment for the State of Israel.
Have the number of UN resolutions critical of Israel changed over the years?
The General Assembly and Human Rights Council are mostly on autopilot, as are other UN agencies like UNESCO, when it comes to many votes and particularly anti-Israel resolutions. Typically it’s the same resolutions every year. They are sponsored by the Arab and Islamic states, with the Palestinians playing a key role. And they typically try to ratchet up the language to make it more inflammatory.
November marked 40 years since the adoption of the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution, which thankfully was repealed in 1991. But that really ushered in the era of the automatic condemnations of Israel. And we’ve been steady in recent year at 20 resolutions in New York and about five at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. And of course, there are special additional items that come up.
How did Canada’s voting record under former prime minister Stephen Harper compare to those of the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin governments?
The Martin government improved the balance from the Chrétien government. Canada had a more balanced record, opposing the most egregious, one-sided and inflammatory resolutions, where previously they might have abstained. They moved on a couple of things to a “No.”
And then when Harper came in, we trended in a positive direction, even more so, most famously in Geneva at the Human Rights Council when Canada was a member from 2006 to 2009. Canada was the only country in the world that was voting “no” on a number of votes. That was something that stood out.
What do you expect from the Trudeau government?
Clearly this is a government that has a different approach to the United Nations. The Harper government was skeptical of the UN, and the Trudeau government has a more positive attitude. That’s fine, provided that the Trudeau government will speak truth to power and stand up on principle.
We believe in the mission of the UN, but when the UN falls short of that mission, when the UN Human Rights Council chooses Saudi Arabia to chair a panel that selects human rights experts on issues like women’s rights and judicial independence, that’s a mockery of what the UN is meant to be and a mockery of Canadian values of a free and democratic society.
I hope and trust that the Trudeau government will strengthen the UN by opposing those who seek to hijack that body and distort its founding mission and values.
Has the UN responded to the crises in Syria, Iraq and Crimea with the same level of resolutions that are directed at Israel?
Absolutely not. The case of Israel remains unique, and it continues to draw focus that is disproportionate to an extreme degree from what happens on the ground.
Syria was ignored for decades when President Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, was murdering tens of thousands in Hama back in the 1980s. Syria was re-elected repeatedly to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.
Libya was made the chair of the Human Rights Commission in 2003, Arab dictatorships were given a free pass. They were rewarded.
In 2011, Syria alienated the Sunni world, and you had an Alawite regime, which is part of the Shiite world, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, at war with the Sunnis. The Sunni regimes at the UN – Egypt, the Saudis, Jordan, the other Gulf countries – turned against Syria. That enabled the UN to criticize Syria on a number of occasions. But compared to how they criticize Israel and to what is happening on the ground, it’s marginal. There is one resolution at the General Assembly on Syria. There’s 20 on Israel. So that says it all.
The Palestinian flag was raised at the UN for the first time around the same time that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas told the General Assembly that the Palestinians were no longer bound by Oslo. What is the significance of those two events?
Well, you had that statement by Abbas showing contempt for signed international agreements. But beyond that, in the past weeks, PA media are openly inciting to kill Jews, and the Palestinian media is glorifying the killers of Jews as martyrs and saying they are carrying out a sacred Islamic duty.
The response of the UN, besides a few passing, fleeting criticisms that were outweighed by far stronger condemnations of Israel, was to elevate and reward Abbas by raising the flag at the United Nations. It is outrageous that the UN, instead of holding the Palestinians to account, are treating them like children, not treating them as agents who can be held responsible for their actions. This only guarantees that we’ll have further bad acts by the Palestinian government.
UN Watch revealed recently that 22 UNRWA teachers were inciting anti-Semitism. At first UNRWA denied it and later said there was some legitimacy to what you said, and they disciplined those teachers. Are you satisfied with their response?
We’re gratified there was some acknowledgment by UNRWA of the basic facts. Anybody who goes on the Internet sees individuals who openly identify as UNRWA teachers posting photos of themselves in the classroom, and at the same time posting things in those same accounts showing pictures of Israelis being stabbed and encouraging murderous attacks against Jews. Saying for example, “stab Zionist dogs.”
It’s not a question of slapping them on the wrist. The best we have from UNRWA is acknowledging that some teachers had been suspended.
What does that mean? Suspended for a day, a week, two weeks?
The response of UNRWA is unsatisfactory, to say the least. It’s far worse than that. UNRWA’s spokesman, Chris Gunness, has attacked UN Watch. He published a number of tweets urging journalists to ignore us, that we have no credibility
It’s insufficient, and generally their attitude is one of contempt toward those of us trying to hold them accountable, and it’s unacceptable.
There have been several videos of yourself addressing the UN and drawing the ire of various diplomats. How does that make you feel?
It’s not a pleasant feeling to walk into a room where you know there are various people who hate you and give you the look of death.
When I go in the room, you have the enmity of the Palestinians, of the Arab regimes, be it the Syrians and other dictatorships around the world that UN Watch confronts.
Beyond that, you have UN officials who are made uncomfortable when we remind them of the injustices that the UN perpetrates and the hypocrisy and the double standards.
And then of course you have UN-accredited NGOs, human rights activists. Sadly, there are NGOs that are viscerally anti-Israel, viscerally anti-American and viscerally knee-jerk UN defenders who will not brook any criticism of the UN. And so when they see me, UN Watch, they see a group that does not think America is at the root of all evil, who does not think that free markets are at the root of all evil, and do not think that Israel is at the root of all evil.
So for all of those reasons, they see us as almost their arch enemies. And those are the NGOs who sit next to us.
How do you resist the pressure to be more conformist?
I try to recall the tradition of Abraham, who was one of the world’s first non-conformists and at a time of idolatry, he spoke for the one God. That’s what I try to do here.
And I try to speak for the truth, and what gives us strength is that I know even though it is just myself and a handful of colleagues, I know that in the plenary at the UN, behind us, the wind in our sails, are 4.5 million people who have watched our videos, more than 60,000 people who like UN Watch on Facebook and some 25,000 to 30,000 followers on our various Twitter accounts.
And these people have been very generous in their encouragement. We get at various times hundreds if not thousands of messages of support. We get financial support from a number of people from around the world, sending us their blessing and their very emotional, enthusiastic gratitude for the work we do. So when we go in there, we may be alone, but we know we speak for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people and that we’re standing up for truth. And that gives us the strength to persevere.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity