Weakening and Discrediting the U.N.: The Work of Pro-Israel NGOs
by Richard FalkModerator Askia Muhammad: Please allow me to present for his remarks Richard Anderson Falk. Prof. Richard Falk is the author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 volumes, including Achieving Human Rights, Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East with Howard Friel, and The Costs of War: International Law, the U.N., and World Order after Iraq. From 2008 to 2014 Falk served as U.N. Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.”
Richard Falk: Let me first say that I’m honored and happy to be part of this important event, and thank the conveners for bringing us together. It reveals the two sides of the present reality that should be both encouraging and disturbing. The one side being that there are growing voices that seek justice and peace for both peoples, and this kind of gathering, I think, is an affirmation of that. But it’s also true, as Jeff Blankfort reminded us, that there is a dreadful asymmetry in the way in which the public is informed about these realities. The media indulges in a kind of feasting whenever they get the opportunity to celebrate pro-Israeli happenings, and they practice the opposite in relation to any kind of balanced inquiry into the realities of the conflict. And we must keep both of those realities in mind if we are to understand the situation correctly.
There are no better texts for assessing the damage done to the role and reputation of the United Nations by the Israeli Lobby than Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statements about efforts within the U.N. by the U.S. to protect Israel from the fulfillment of its responsibilities under international law and in relation to the U.N.
Despite the recent tensions arising over [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, Kerry boasted almost at the same time on ABC-TV news: “We have intervened on Israel’s behalf in the last two years, more than several hundred—a couple of hundred times in over 75 different fora in order to protect Israel.” [“This Week,” Feb. 28, 2015] And then, when addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Kerry included a statement that could have been drafted by AIPAC or Israel’s ambassador at the U.N. when he said: “It must be said that the Human Rights Council’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.” And further, “we will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the U.N. system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel, not just in the Human Rights Council but wherever it occurs.” [Remarks, Palais des Nations, Geneva, March 2, 2015] What is striking about such statements by our highest ranking government officials dealing with foreign policy is the disconnect between this unconditional support and Israel’s record of disregard for its obligations under international law and with respect to the authority of the United Nations. When speaking at the March AIPAC meetings, Sen. Lindsey Graham went even further when he told the audience that when serving as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “I’m gonna put the U.N. on notice” that I will go after the U.N. funding if the organization takes any steps to “marginalize” Israel.
During my six years as U.N. Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine I had the opportunity to observe the manner in which international and national so-called NGOs give priority to discrediting those who offer any critical assessment of Israel’s conduct. These are “so-called” NGOs because they are so closely aligned with the governmental priorities and viewpoints of Israel that they should be really known as “quasi-governmental organizations.” And I think of U.N. Watch and others in that category.
There are really two ways that this effort to devalue and discredit the U.N. and its activities takes place. One is to attack individuals and the other is to attack the organization itself. Most consistently, a reliance on defamatory attacks on the critics as biased and even anti-Semitic whenever someone describing Israeli violations of international law or sympathetically reporting on Palestinian grievances. Coupled with this kind of personal attack is an avoidance of substantive aspects as to whether the criticisms or grievances are well-founded from the perspective of international law and human rights law. In other words, these defamatory attacks are disassociated from whether their substance is grounded in fact and reasonable interpretations of relevant law. Even those defamatory attacks, at least in my case, focused on distorted presentations of my views on a variety of issues that were made in settings other than the U.N. and did not pertain to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The intended effect was to shift attention from the message containing these issues to the messenger. In other words, instead of focusing on the message, the hope was to generate a controversy about a disreputable messenger. With incredible persistence, U.N. Watch, in particular, circulated their defamatory attacks to prominent international personalities, including high-ranking civil servants in the U.N. itself, such as the U.N. secretary-general, the high commissioner for human rights, and a variety of ambassadors of countries friendly to Israel.
What was particularly disturbing to me was the extent to which these defamatory attacks were treated without examination as credible by supposedly responsible officials here in Washington and New York, who didn’t even bother to check with me or with the sources that were being relied upon, and led to the endorsement of such defamation in ways damaging to my reputation but, more significantly, diverting attention from the substance of Israeli uncontestable violations of fundamental international law and human rights law. And that’s what I call the politics of deflection. Instead of talking about the real issues that should be discussed within the U.N., the effort is to get people to talk about whether a particular person is an anti-Semite or is in some way biased. It doesn’t rest on any facts. It rests on the repetition of the defamation. And if you repeat, as Joseph Goebbels understood very well, if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes a kind of publicly accepted truth. And that’s where the, I think, very destructive effect of this kind of tactics occurs.
Mentioning just one incident that is illustrative of a much broader pattern, the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denounced me as biased, even using the word despicable, with reference to opinions that had nothing to do with my role as Special Rapporteur but referred to distortions of what I had said about the 9/11 attacks and about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. After the first of these attacks I tried to find out why the secretary-general would launch such an attack on someone within the organization, and I was told by his aide de camp that they didn’t, as he put it, do due diligence, which means they didn’t read what it was I supposedly said. And besides, they were under pressure from the U.S. Congress to show that they were not anti-Israeli. It was a time when Ban Ki-moon was running for a second term as secretary-general. So one sees the insidious way in which these political maneuvers play out. And it’s sort of reminiscent of the Soviet system, where the leadership reaches out to some lowly individual like myself in order to demonstrate a kind of larger political reality.
What I am trying to explain by these references to my experience is the degree to which these quasi-NGOs stir up trouble for those seeking to document allegations concerning Israel’s violation, and actually weaken the way in which the organization can function on behalf of the international community and in promoting what I think one would hope would be the global interests, rather than merely succumbing to the national interests of the most powerful members of the organization. One of the most disturbing features of this is the degree to which the U.S. ambassadors at the U.N. swallow what U.N. Watch and NGO Monitor, both kind of quasi-governmental organizations, what they feed them. And, again in my case, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both of whom know better, just routinely repeated the kind of denunciations and defamations that were associated with these attacks.
The second approach used on behalf of Israel to weaken and discredit the U.N. involves trying to both manipulate the organization and to undermine it at the same time. It’s a very sophisticated kind of relationship to the U.N. that Israel has. It both pretends to be victimized by the organization and yet, because of its relationship to the U.S. and its clever use of these kinds of tactics, it intimidates the organization more than any other government, however large or small. It’s a kind of a tour de force of a negative variety that it is able, despite being so uncooperative, to impose its views. Rather than being biased, the U.N. leans over backward in every particular context to make sure that Israel’s best arguments are made fully available and given as much attention as possible. In other words, the reality is just the opposite of the perception in this country. If anything, the organization could be criticized as being indifferent to the Palestinian reality and biased toward not offending Israel. It’s quite an amazing manipulation of the reality, at least as I experienced and understood it.
There was a recent speech by Israeli Ambassador [to the U.S.] Ron Dermer that spoke of the tide of hatred aimed at Israel within the U.N. That kind of language is used to influence the atmosphere here in Washington and Congress. It’s a sad commentary on the state of our democracy that so many of our elected representatives swallow this central lie about the U.N., an organization the world desperately needs to be strong and effective, because of these kinds of defamatory tactics. Rather than the U.N. reflecting the supposed hostility of repressive regimes to Israel, the U.N. has increasingly been neutralized in any effort to produce a sustainable peace that is just for both peoples.
One forgets that it is the U.N. that failed the Palestinian people when the British gave up their colonial mandate and dumped the future of Palestine into the hands of the U.N. It’s unlike any other place in the world, as far as U.N. responsibility is concerned. And so, again, the criticism that Kerry made and others that the U.N. devotes disproportionate attention to the Israel/Palestine conflict is really the reverse of what it should be doing. That is, for over 65 years it’s failed to realize the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people that every other major people in the world has enjoyed and achieved. We have reached a time when we should expect and demand of not only the U.S. government but of the international community that it fulfils this long-neglected responsibility, and not to overlook the present realities of both peoples and the mistakes of the past, but to create some kind of future that is viable for both peoples.
My time is rapidly elapsing, more rapidly than my text, unfortunately. But let me just say the following…that Palestine may be winning the legitimacy war being waged throughout the world and at the United Nations to obtain popular support for the Palestinian cause with the peoples of the world, but it is continuing to lose the geopolitical war that is being waged within the organization, and it’s very important to keep these two wars in mind. The legitimacy war is a war waged by people to achieve rights and justice. The geopolitical war is being waged by powerful governmental forces linked to powerful economic forces that seek to sustain unjust structures of authority and power. Let me stop there and thank you for your patience.