Slightly edited transcript of a Zoom discussion with panellists, Mitch Fifield, current Australian Ambassador to the UN; The Hon. Theresa Villiers, Member of Parliament for Chipping Barnet, Conservative Friends of Israel Vice-Chairman, & former UK Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Hillel C. Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch, a human rights NGO in Geneva, Switzerland; Danny Danon, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, former MK and Israeli Minister, and current Chair of World Likud; and Michael Easson as the panel compere, for the International Institute for Strategic Leadership Dialogue, streamed live on 8 December 2020.
Thank you Albert Dadon, the Convenor of the Dialogue, for suggesting this Panel topic. Anyone involved in international politics, in diplomacy, has considered the role and potential of the United Nations. For many of us, there is a feeling of frustration about the missed opportunities. For some, it is a question of making the best of what we’ve got. The perfectibility of human organisations may not be possible, but that doesn’t mean we should not strive for improvement. The UN and UN organisations have been important in the history of the Middle East, including the resolution to support the partition of Palestine in 1947, Israel’s formation in 1948, its admission to the UN in 1949, and the notorious United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, adopted on 10 November 1975 by a vote of 72 to 35 (with 32 abstentions), which “determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” And the issue of bias towards Israel by certain UN agencies, etc., continues to be controversial. For this Panel discussion we have a current Australian and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, or as they say, the present and past “Permanent Representative” of their country to the UN; a former UK Cabinet Minister and current Member of the House of Commons; and the CEO of a human rights organisation, UN Watch. First, we’ll hear from Mitch Fifield, Australia’s UN representative, a former minister in the Abbott, Turnbull, and Morrison governments, and a former Australian Senator from the state of Victoria, 2004 to 2019. Mitch, welcome to the panel. You are super dedicated. It is just after 3.00am in the morning in New York. I wonder if you could share your impressions, as a new Ambassador. I am sure you would have insights as to what surprised, what you expected, what works, what needs changing at the UN.
[opening comments missing on the tape] …in Central Park, the Javits Convention Center turned into an ICU. And I think something that really brought it home was the site of the UN humanitarian stockpile, donating hundreds of thousands of face masks to [New York] Mayor Bill de Blasio, but I made these observations not really to reflect on my experience here but to highlight that I think seldom before has the UN and its policy makers been as affected in such a direct way and been in such close proximity to a crisis that they were charged with framing policy to respond to. And all UN agencies have adapted quickly and well to the pandemic, the World Food Program being just one of many. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their works. The WHO has obviously received attention, and all would know the World Health Assembly member states agreed to an independent evaluation of the global COVID response. So, I think COVID has demonstrated, like perhaps nothing else could that there are some issues that can really only be handled by global collective action.
Now, Michael, we’re in the 75th year of the UN. So, it’s a natural time to reflect on what’s worked, what needs reform and refurbishment. So, I think it’s the right thing to acknowledge the successes but, also, to be clear-eyed.
But to do this, I think it’s really important to firstly understand the UN and the limits of what can be achieved. And I think the best analogy I have come across from one of my Nordic ambassadorial colleagues is to liken the UN and its organs to a cross between a parliament and the Vatican. The General Assembly of 193 member states and its six committees really does operate with the collegiality of a parliament. Fifty percent plus one is required to do things and fifty percent plus one is required to stop things. Ambassadors in this place operate more like senators in a chamber where no party has the numbers, rather than as bilateral ambassadors seeking the attention of a host government.
Then alongside the General Assembly, in the International Enclave on the East River at Turtle Bay, is the UN Secretariat. Now, it’s not entirely unlike the Vatican City state. The Secretary-General, cast in the role of a secular Pope, appointed by the conclave of ambassadorial cardinals in the Security Council. To take the analogy to its logical absurdity, many of the UN agencies operate a bit like quasi-independent papal states with their own mandates and their own structures. But just to take that analogy back a little bit, the UN agencies, when I say they operate to their own mandates, they are member state run like the ITU, like the IPU.
Now, Michael, yes, the system is a labyrinth, it’s complex, it can be frustrating but as in parliaments in most UN fora, it’s numbers that count. And I think if bilateral work is akin to legislating in the House of Representatives, where wins are more straightforward, multi-lateral work it’s like legislating in the Senate. Wins take longer, the hard ones through persuasion and coalition building and sometimes they entail compromise. And just as in legislating, you need the House and the Senate in prosecuting the national interest. You need both bilateral and multilateral engagement.
I think often when people aren’t happy with something that the UN does, the issue isn’t so much the institution itself. Actually, you’ve got to remember it’s a decision of member states. The UN, it’s not a building. It’s not the UN secretariat. The UN is the member states.
Now, none of this is to say that the UN system and its institutions don’t need tending to and some reform across the UN mandates of peace and security and development and human rights but when you’re talking about the UN reform, things need to be practical and realistic. And a case in point, an example of practical reform, that’s been able to be achieved, is the UN Development System. There’s been contestability between agencies, which has been introduced. There’s better coordination at the country level. The UN Secretary General, just another quick example, something that matters in our region in the Indo-Pacific, has agreed to the need for a new UN office in the North Pacific, something our Pacific island neighbors are very keen on.
In the peace and security field, reform has meant putting a premium on conflict prevention, also breaking down silos within the UN’s human rights and development work. I’m going to be frank. These reforms are not always supported, they’re contested but with painstaking diplomacy, we do inch forward.
I’ll give you a few more seconds, if that’s okay. 15 seconds, if that’s okay.
The perennial issue of course is UN Security Council reform. Now, that could occupy a session on itself, Michael. So, I’ll leave it at that for now but just to conclude, it’s important to mention that well before COVID, the 75th anniversary brought a renewed focus on UN bodies. The Prime Minister commissioned a stock-take of our multilateral engagement and that essentially reaffirmed the importance of being involved in these institutions because you can never pick which part of the UN system is going to matter in the future as COVID has shown. You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be involved. You’ve got to be shaping the rules and norms.
Michael, thanks indeed and look forward to a good discussion.
Thank you very much, Mitch. I remember one former Australian ambassador to the UN who didn’t come from the diplomatic corps making a comment when he was living in New York. He said “It’s finally come to this, Michael. I’m now living in public housing in New York City.” So, it’s a claim that any ambassador can make who is stationed at the UN IN NYC.
Teresa, it’s now just after a quarter past 8 in the morning in London. Welcome to the Dialogue. Welcome to this session. I wonder if you would like to share some comments, observations, about the topic, about the UN.
Yes, I’d be delighted. It’s an honor to join such a distinguished panel. And whilst COVID has been sort of hugely disruptive and restricted so much of our lives, one thing the Zoom revolution has prompted is the benefit of bringing people together virtually for important discussions like this in a way perhaps never attempted on this scale before. So, I’m pleased that this conference is actually going ahead despite the fact that we can’t all be in the same room or the same country together.
And I have to say when it comes to the UN, I’ve long be concerned about the UN’s approach on Israel. And this obviously is a matter which Hilal and UN Watch have highlighted over many years, but also a number of the people that I represent in north London, in my constituency [inaudible][08:44] have regularly contacted me over the years about resolutions in the United Nations regarding Israel, which they view as one-sided. And it seems to me that one of the United Nations’ greatest weaknesses is that it does single out Israel for criticism in a way which is disproportionate and unjustified and simply isn’t reflected in their attitude to other countries. It’s depressing to see this long-standing problem continue with votes taking place as recently as last month. For example, on the 4th of November in the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee, the UN General Assembly backed a resolution criticising Israel, which was actually co-sponsored by Bashar Al-Assad. I think that was particularly shocking. To condemn Israel for its actions in relation to the Golan Heights is astonishing when one considers the appalling conduct of the Syrian regime just across the border in the territory that it controls.
And since 2015, the UN General Assembly, I’m sure this audience will know, has adopted, I gather, 96 condemnatory resolutions on Israel compared to just four on Iran which has a shocking human rights record, five on North Korea, seven on Syria, three on Myanmar and none at all on China, Libya, Pakistan or Zimbabwe. In March 2017, the UK government delivered an unprecedented condemnation of the UN Human Rights Council’s bias against Israel, announcing that it was putting the body on notice and would vote against every motion on the conflict unless the Human Rights Council ended its disproportionate and biased approach to Israel. As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson repeated this condemnation in February 2018. And the frustrating thing, though, is that I’m afraid UK delegations in the various UN bodies do continue sometimes to vote for these resolutions or at least abstain on them. And I’m afraid I’ve had a long history of complaining about this and will continue to do so if it carries on. And I hugely regret the UK government vote in favor of the notorious resolution 2234 a year or two back. Like so many other UN resolutions, that actively makes a negotiating settlement harder by trying to predetermine issues such as the governance of the holy sites in Jerusalem and, as I’m sure, we’ll explore during this discussion.
And my fear is that the UN undermines its own effectiveness and credibility by taking a highly partisan approach. And I’ve seen this sort of especially in relation to the UN Human Rights Council. It’s a body I’ve actually visited in Geneva to talk about human rights in Sri Lanka and it has, I have to say, done very good work on seeking justice for the victims of crimes committed during the Sri Lankan civil war. It really led the way, it got important resolutions adopted and it persuaded the government of Sri Lanka to put its name to those resolutions. So, it’s frustrating that that kind of worthwhile and laudable work on one conflict, I think, the credibility of that is undermined by the HRC’s unreasonable and dogmatic approach on the Middle East, not least because that unreasonable and dogmatic approach has for the moment caused the US to pull out altogether from the Human Rights Council.
And if the United Nations, I think, is ever going to be the universally trusted forum for global cooperation and dispute resolution that it aspires to be and that we would all want it to be, then it urgently needs a fresh approach on the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. And I warmly welcome the most recent development in relation to that dispute, the Abraham Accords. They reflect changing attitudes across a number of countries in the Middle East. And I hope that this shift will see others follow the lead set by UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan. And while there’s not much evidence of it so far, I hope that one day this thawing of relationships frozen for many years between the Arab world and Israel starts also to influence the UN so it can begin to give Israel a much fairer hearing than has been the case over past decades.
And I look forward to discussion with fellow panellists and the audience on these important matters.
And there, Chairman, I’ll hand back to you and look forward to questions later on.
Thank you very much, Teresa. We’ll now go to Hillel. And it’s interesting the UN in 1947 obviously played a big role in the formation of Israel. In 1975, we had the “Zionism is racism. A great evil is loosed upon the world” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, the United States Ambassador to the UN, and some improvements that Teresa had just referred to. And yet, last week, last Wednesday, the UN General Assembly voted on five resolutions which Australia voted against. Hillel, you strike me as a human rights lawyer mugged by reality. You now head up the UN Watch. Over to you. It’s now 9:24 a.m. in the morning in Geneva.
Over to you, Hillel.
Okay, thank you very much. I’m actually based in Geneva, but I am currently speaking to you from the beautiful city of Tel Aviv. So, I can’t claim it’s that early. It’s 10:25 a.m. but thank you for having me and it’s great to be on this call with distinguished individuals who I have had the pleasure to meet. Actually, one year ago, two of the people on the call, Ambassador Danon and the ambassador of Australia were with UN Watch when we honored [former US Ambassador to the UN] Nikki Haley at the Plaza Hotel, one of the last events that we had before COVID. So, it’s great to be reunited again.
75 years ago, we saw a very important development in world affairs with the creation of the United Nations Charter and we’re marking the 75th anniversary this year of an indispensable international organisation. The United Nations is regarded as the repository of international legitimacy. And as mentioned by a number of my colleagues on this panel, the United Nations has made important contributions in this regard in many areas and across many UN bodies. The General Assembly, the world parliament, which is currently meeting in its annual legislative session has adopted in the past month and will confirm those resolutions next week, important resolutions for human rights victims in North Korea, important resolution for human rights victims in Iran, which is a long resolution that documents numerous gross and systematic violations against the rights of women, against the rights of the Baha’is and other minorities, and resolution for human rights victims in Syria, for example.
So, when the United Nations can rally like-minded countries to act in concert to put a spotlight on some of the world’s most egregious abuses and speak out for victims, it truly lives up to its founding purpose to uphold international peace and security and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights. So, certainly, it can do so at the General Assembly. It can also do so at the Human Rights Council and in other bodies when our democracies lead and when they can find the coalitions to do so. It’s not always possible to find that coalition but unfortunately, as Teresa mentioned and others have mentioned, the same General Assembly this month is currently adopting 17 resolutions that single out Israel, for example, but that’s certainly not the only problem with the United Nations. It really goes far beyond Israel and it is a problem that, I would say, two things.
One is that sometimes our democracies fail to act and lead, in a way that they should, to speak out for victims. And in other times we have an issue where dictatorships tend to dominate certain bodies. Certainly, in New York there’s a committee that’s of concern to me. Our organisation, UN Watch, is a non-governmental organisation, an NGO and there is a [UN] committee that oversees NGOs and it is dominated by countries like China, Nicaragua, Turkey — the vice president — and there’s only a handful of democracies that can speak out and defend NGOs that see credentials there. That’s in New York. In Geneva, of course, we have the Human Rights Council which includes such champions of human rights as Eritrea, as Bangladesh, and as Venezuela which was elected last year. The Maduro regime which has destroyed its own country, he’s destroyed his own country, five million people have fled and there’s a humanitarian catastrophe there and he’s been unwilling to accept international aid. So, that’s the Maduro regime. And then in three weeks’ time, these champions of human rights will be joined by China, Russia and Cuba which have just been elected to the Human Rights Council.
So, it’s funny to mention these things but it’s quite serious because if you want to get something done, and Teresa mentioned the case of Sri Lanka, that’s a positive example of what was done in Sri Lanka, but it wasn’t always the case. Back in May 2009, I was there in Geneva when right after Sri Lanka had killed 40,000 Tamils, when a Special Session was called by the good guys to put a spotlight on Sri Lanka, but the bad guys took over the Session and they had the majority and the outcome resolution of that Special Session back in May 2009 was a document praising Sri Lanka for promoting and protecting human rights after it killed 40,000 Tamils. So, when you get dictatorships that dominate these bodies, you’ll get a situation where the Human Rights Council has never spoken out once for women in Saudi Arabia, for Christians who are on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan. There’s never been a resolution on Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and the list goes on. So, I would say these bodies can work if our democracies fight to make them work, and it’s not always the case.
I think when it comes to the election of dictatorships, our democracies too often don’t even speak out. We know that the UK, according to leaked documents, was in conversations with Saudi Arabia to elect each other onto the Human Rights Council. David Cameron effectively admitted that in an interview that they had reasons for it but that they voted for Saudi Arabia to be on Human Rights Council. So, I think that’s quite unfortunate. And we’ve certainly tried to fight the election of these dictatorships to the council.
Hillel, if you could summarise now and then we’ll go to Ambassador Danon but over to you. Another 15 seconds if that’s okay.
Thank you. Yes, I think that the UN bodies are what we make of them and democracies need to act in concert to ensure that these bodies do uphold democracy and don’t protect the dictatorships.
Ambassador Danon, welcome back to the Dialogue. I’m sure you have a range of opinions that you can share with us on this very interesting topic. Over to you.
Thank you very much and good morning everybody from Israel. Thank you, Albert, for your leadership. Mitch, it was 3 a.m. and you look very, very sharp. So that’s amazing, I hope to see you in person in in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem soon and then to see all of you in the [Dialogue] forum in Jerusalem next year.
So, I have to tell you that after serving five long years at the UN, I learned a lot about this organisation. And in Israel in general, when you ask the average Israeli, they’ll tell you “Why do we need the UN? Why bother? Maybe we should finish with that, pull out from this organisation. It’s a waste of time, waste of effort, waste of energy.” This is not my opinion. I think the UN is an important organisation. The very fact that you have leaders meeting in one building and we talk is meaningful. And Teresa mentioned the Abraham Accord. I can tell you that parts of the thing that we see today started in the corridors of the UN. So, it was done quietly behind closed doors and we see the outcomes today in the White House and in Dubai. As we speak, you have 14 flights from Tel Aviv to Dubai. I don’t know for how long the Emirates would bear with so many Israelis in the streets of Dubai but it is amazing because, when I visited Dubai three years ago in my UN capacity, it had to be coordinated and it was very complicated there to organize everything. And today, you have tens of thousands of Israelis travelling to the UAE and Bahrain. So, I think we can change the UN from the inside. It’s not easy and it won’t be.
I want to give you one example. When I decided to run for the position of the Chairman of the Legal Committee, the sixth committee, my colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were against it and telling me “We cannot win in this body. It’s a lost cause” and I said “So what? So, we will lose but let’s try.” And I gathered the support of many of our friends and it was secret ballots, and we received the support of 109 member states who supported me. Only 44 voted against me. And I became the first Israeli ever to chair a UN permanent committee, the sixth committee, the Legal Committee, which was the proudest moment when I walked into the chamber of the sixth committee, and I chaired for a year the committee. And it proved that we can get things done even in a hostile place like the UN but in order to continue, I think we change the actual bureaucracy of the UN. I will be very specific about it.
One of the things that I was shocked to see at the UN that every year we vote at the UN on the exact same resolutions. And for me as somebody who came from the parliament in the government, it was ridiculous but once you pass a resolution, you move on but when you see what happened a few weeks ago in the General Assembly, they voted on the resolutions against Israel, and you know what I told you to my colleagues? I told “If you want to attack Israel, at least be relevant. Change the language of the resolution. Bring new ideas” but they don’t do it. And it’s not only about Israel. It’s about the entire global issues. They bring the same language, and they vote on the same resolution. And look what happened this year. Instead of having a discussion about the Abraham Accords, you can support it, you can be against it, you can raise the Palestinian issue, everything is legitimate but let’s have a relevant discussion, they went back, and they discussed the previous resolution that passed 20 years ago, same language. It’s boring. It’s irrelevant. And I think if the UN wants to be effective, we have to change that mechanism and decide that once we vote on a resolution, we move on. And every year we present new resolutions, new ideas and I think it will be helpful for all and it will also change the issue of an anti-Israel agenda at the UN because today, instead of dealing with other issues with Iran, with North Korea, they don’t have time for that. They have so much energy that they have to put into those ridiculous anti-Israel resolutions. So, there is no room for other ideas.
I think the forum is very important in this issue because when I was at the UN, you always spoke about the moral majority. We don’t have the numbers, but we have the moral majority. And if you take strong democracies who give most of the funding to the UN, they can make the change, they should demand to see the changes and, as Mitch mentioned, the UN Security Council reform. And I think every agency of the UN, when you look at it, it should be reformed, whether it’s the UNRWA, the World Health Organisation. Look what happened in the last six months. It was a disaster. These organisations, they received hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare the world for a crisis and look what they did in the last few months. So, I think that the responsibility is on the leaders of the strong democracies, for sure, the UK, Australia, US, Israel, Germany and you name all of them. They should sit together and say “We will continue to support the UN, we will continue with the funding but we demand A, B, and C.” I think it will help the UN, it will help the developing countries and definitely, it will help Israel because Israel will move to a different stage that instead of defending our positions 24×7, we will be able to share our technology, to share our ideas and to support developing countries.
So, I’m optimistic about it. It’s a long process but it requires strong leaders that will lead the moral majority at the UN.
Thank you very much, ambassador. I know that Alan Howe has been getting some questions. And to those who want to question a panel member, please let Alan know your question. Before I go to him, Mitch you talked about the need for [UN] reform and the Australian government approach, and you’re determined to try and do a few things to shake up the organisation. Ambassador Danon has just talked about optimism in the context of the moral majority and never giving up. Theresa and Hillel have highlighted a number of the deficiencies of the organisation, the repeated resolutions, the disappointment we all feel about what sometimes comes out of UN agencies.
I wonder, Mitch, do you have a timeline? What do you think is realistic in terms of reforms that you will be seeking to have an impact on through the Australian government? That’s my first question. Members of the panel might want to then comment. And then we’ll throw it open to Alan Howe to let us know the questions that have been coming in from participants, But Mitch, what are your comments on that question?
Thanks, Michael. I mentioned briefly in my remarks that in October last year, the prime minister commissioned a stock-take of Australia’s multilateral engagement, its efficacy. The foreign minister in June spoke at the ANU and shared the results of the audit. And the audit’s conclusions were that multilateral bodies are under pressure. That’s something we know. That’s something that we’ve canvassed that the performance at times has struggled, but one of the key points that she made, and this goes to any forum, any international body where you want to seek reform or where you want to seek an outcome, her concluding remark, and I think there’s a lot in this, was when it comes to multilateralism, nothing just happens. When you want to affect change in an organisation, or if you just want to pass a resolution, as Danny was talking about before, you need to build coalitions issue by issue to affect change. And that’s why I’ve spent some time drawing the analogy between the Senate and the General Assembly. No one has the numbers in their own right. You need to build coalitions. Danny spoke to something which is incredibly important and that is just the basic working methods of the General Assembly of the United Nations. There’s a lot that could be done to make them more efficient. A lot of time is spent going over the same ground again and again. And that is one of the most practical things that you could do to affect reform.
I’ll finish on this point, Michael. The UN Security Council, I think, is often the forum through which people determine if they think the UN is effective or not. And Australia has always had the view and there’s an annual process which looks at the Security Council reform, but we have always had the view that the Security Council should better reflect the world as it is today, that there should be greater representation for Asia, Africa, Latin America. We’ve always said that there should be greater coordination between the Security Council and the General Assembly and also, that there should be better standards for the use of the veto. So, these are things that Australia has sought for some time and will continue to. I can’t put a time frame on it, but we constantly raise these issues in the forums.
Thank you very much, Mitch. And a lot of those comments go to what, Danny, you mentioned about leadership and the need to have leadership to affect change. I wonder if the other members of the panel would like to comment on two or three things that you believe are achievable, maybe not with [a specific] timeline, but perhaps if you have one that would be great.
Hillel, why don’t I ask you first, if you could unmute yourself, if there are two or three things that you think are achievable with the reform of the UN? And then I’ll ask Theresa and Danny to comment as well.
I’ll mention one thing that’s come up is the issue of Israel. I think here it’s notable last week that there were several significant voting changes. There are two annual resolutions of the 17 or so that will be adopted this year singling out Israel. There are two that are significant in that they renew entities whose very raison d’etre, whose very purpose is to propagandise against Israel. One is the committee on Inalienable Palestinian Rights and then a 15-staff-member division on Palestinian rights which organises propaganda events against Israel year-round and worldwide. And the votes on those committees and divisions just had significant vote changes. Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Switzerland changed their votes and voted “no” on one or both of those resolutions, joining a larger group including Australia and others that voted no. I regret that the UK continued to abstain, even though a country like Switzerland which is rarely more balanced on the issue of Israel than the UK would. I regret that the UK and France abstained whereas other countries like Canada, Australia, Colombia, and others voted no. So, I think that’s one example where votes can change. And I think countries like the Czech Republic were quite out in the forefront on that. So, votes can change, and they should on things like that.
Something else, I think, that’s important is to speak the truth when the Human Rights Council adopts resolutions that shield regimes Syria, China, and Cuba. For example, across European countries, they’re adopting something called the Magnitsky Act which enables parliaments, I think, Australia has one if I’m not mistaken, it enables parliaments to sanction gross human rights abusers worldwide and the EU Magnitsky Act was just adopted yesterday. It’s quite significant to target, for example, Putin’s oligarchs who are behind poisoning of dissidents. And then you have a UN mechanism at the Human Rights Council, for example, but it also appears as the General Assembly that is against sanctions against dictators. It’s called the Special Rapporteur Against Unilateral Coercive Measures which is a shameless mechanism to shield the worst dictatorships like Syria, like Russia, from any scrutiny or sanction. And these things happen. And yet, when, for example, the Foreign Office in the UK, when they published their summary of a session, they say that it was a great session and the session played an essential role in holding to account those who violate human rights and addressing pressing human rights issues. But they don’t say that the Non-Aligned Movement passed this resolution which is used by regimes like Iran, Syria, Russia, and Venezuela as a tool to attack the West. So, I think we need to have truth telling if we’re going to have change.
Thank you. Theresa, what are your comments, if you could unmute yourself?
I would like to see reform in the way the UN delivers its aid programs. I think the sort of the bureaucracy and the lack of accountability is worrying. There are huge sums being spent in some of the most troubled areas of the world. And I think if the UN is going to have the credibility that we need it to have for it to be effective, it needs to ensure that the resources it has are devoted to the right purposes. I mean, in any program, there’s potential for abuse. You can’t keep track of every single penny, but I think a great deal more could be done to ensure that the money vested in the UN is appropriately spent for worthwhile purposes. And I suppose I can’t, in this context, help but mention the UNRWA, if I can call it that, the aid agency which supports the Palestinians. Of course, I think it is important for the international community to provide assistance to institutions in relation to the Palestinians but I do have a real concern that the approach taken by UNRWA really perpetuates division in relation to Israel and the Palestinians because of its definition of refugee, which is different from the UN’s approach, different from approaches by organisations around the world in that refugee status is deemed to pass down through the generations, leading to a massive increase in the number of people who are classified as refugees as compared to those who actually did lose their homes back in the 1940s. So, I would like to see greater accountability for UN aid programs, particularly UNRWA.
Thank you very much, Teresa. And Danny, I’m sure you’ve got an opinion on the question, two or three things that could be achievable.
So, first, I think we should not expect a reform with the Security Council, unfortunately. I tried so many times to bring the language to Security Council to condemn Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, and they couldn’t do it because always Russia and China vetoed the language. And I think when you read the Charter of the UN, in order to make any reform in the Security Council, you need the support of the Security Council. So, it will be very hard to convince Russia and China to support any major reform in the UN Security Council. But what we can do is use the funds. And I think many countries that support the UN, they should start to have the annual commitment that you cannot touch but most of the democracies, they donate so much more money above and beyond their commitments to the UN agencies. And they should start there and say “Okay, we will continue to support those important causes, but we will decide how to do it. We will decide how it’s working.” In Israel, there was a debate maybe in the future we should build a UN for democracies. I think it’s far-reaching. I don’t think we should build a new institution, but I think we should use the strength of our economies, of the funding that we contribute to the UN, I’m not talking about Israel because we are a small country, but mainly the strong democracies, and start to change things in the UN and the leadership of those organisations. I think that is feasible and it will be a good sign for the future.
Thank you very much. A number of questions have come in. Alan Howe is coordinating the questions. Over to you, Alan.
Yeah, thank you, Michael. First off, a few people have posed similar questions to Theresa asking that with the normalised relations with the UAE and Bahrain, how might that change attitudes within the UN and how quickly. And what would it mean for that process if Saudi Arabia to do the same.
For the moment, I mean, I understand that within the UN, it isn’t changing attitudes. I mean, others on the panel may be more up-to-date, but even the UAE and Bahrain and Sudan are apparently still voting for anti-Israel resolutions. But I think it is quite a sort of fundamental shift. And therefore, I would really hope that we do over time see that start to change attitudes within the UN. And I think the questioners are right. If we saw Saudi Arabia take similar steps to those three countries, then that would be hugely significant. And one would hope that, absolutely, that would start to have an impact on the debate in the UN, but, as I think everyone pointed out, Mitch included in particular, to get things done in the UN requires very sort of painstaking kind of coalition building because of the way the numbers operate. So, I think even if we were to have that Saudi Arabia breakthrough, I’m afraid it wouldn’t lead to any overnight change in the United Nations. But I hope it might open the way for that over the longer term.
I’m sure members of the panel would like to make some comments. Could I make a suggestion: We save them for one minute at the end, each of you, to make a comment at the end because I know there are some other questions? So, why don’t we exhaust them first and then we’ll go to the panel for some final comments, Alan.
Hillel, Michael Danby from Australia has a question for you. if Helen Clark heads up the UN investigation into the origins of COVID-19, has China won? If so, why and how extensive is China’s influence in the UN?
Well, I thank Michael for that question. And we miss Michael at the Human Rights Council. He came a few years ago to be with us and to speak about victims in Syria and we invited other parliamentarians who wanted to visit Geneva and take the floor [which] UN Watch was happy to give to them.
Thank you, Michael, for that question about the WHO. As mentioned before, the World Health Organisation, in response to Australia and other countries who requested it, has created an international panel to examine the global response to the pandemic and that includes the WHO response to the pandemic as well as those of particular countries, which would include, of course, China which played a significant role in the origins of the COVID-19 virus. We and others have expressed concerns that Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, was made the co-chair of this inquiry and seems to be playing a leading role for really two reasons. This is an important inquiry. The world needs to trust it. It needs to be credible. And the fact that Helen Clark for the past year alone has been an advocate for the WHO response, she’s repeatedly on her Twitter account, one can see it, has been saying WHO has been great and they’ve been terrific in their response and she was saying these things while tagging Dr. Tedros, the chief of the WHO. So, she was really an unequivocal partisan celebrating the WHO’s actions and now she’s meant to investigate. You can’t be an advocate for a party and be a judge at the same time. That’s number one.
Secondly, clearly, China is a major issue in examining the coronavirus and Helen Clark has a record going back about four decades of being a very strong promoter of China. In 1986, going back to then, she chaired a panel in the New Zealand parliament that called for boosting ties with China. She’s the one who brought in the Free Trade Agreement with China. And when she came in 2001 to China, she was called an old and good friend. So, she’s someone who’s considered a very old and good friend of China. And it’s not clear that a reasonable person would think that she’s impartial on that issue. I’m not saying that she’s being influenced by China but when she ran to be Secretary General which she didn’t get, the headlines were “China keen on Helen Clark’s bid.” So, I think that’s inappropriate, and we’ve expressed that, and her response was ad hominem and not substantial at all. So, we regret that, and I think certainly we reiterate our call as others have called that she should step down if we’re going to have an inquiry that the world will treat as serious and credible.
Thank you very much. Alan.
I will try this one to Mitch Fairfield and make sure he’s still on his toes at 3:30. Mitch, Lord Pickles has sent us a question from the UK. The UNRWA uses funds not to bring accord but to fuel resentment. Should it be wound up?
Alan, we participate positively. We contribute in UN forums where we have the opportunity to do so. Can I just say across the board when it comes to the UN and its forums, that we oppose anti-Israel bias, we oppose unbalanced language, we oppose disproportionate attention to any one country and that’s reflected in our negotiations on resolutions and that’s reflected in our votes.
Could I mention to everyone that we end the Zoom call within an hour. We’ve only booked an hour. So, I might now ask each of the panellists just to respond within one minute. No more please. Less is even greater, even better. I might mention that Gerald Steinberg asked a question about the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People as driving the anti-Israel agenda and [he asks] could that be ended? That was the question that we may not have the time to answer but could I ask the panel members maybe in reverse order to how we began just to give no more than a minute in any comment that you would like to make.
I’ll ask Ambassador Danon to begin.
Thank you. So, I think we should look at what’s happening today with COVID-19 as an opportunity, an opportunity to change the narrative at the UN because we are starting to think about post-COVID world and we will see that we are coming back to life flying, dealing with multilateral issues. And I think it brings an opportunity to discuss the important issues that we need to promote at the UN and Israel can play a major role in terms of sharing our technology. I like to use the term ‘Diplotechnology’, applying Israeli technology to support our diplomacy. And I think we can offer a lot in terms of the Security, Health, Agritech. And those issues, that’s what people care about. In the last five years, I had the honor to bring to Israel more than 100 UN ambassadors which I’m sorry we couldn’t organize the trip before I left but we are waiting for you here. And on those trips, we speak a lot about security.
Thank you, Danon. I’m thinking of no more than a minute.
Okay, I will conclude. Most of the Ambassadors, they care about food and health for their people. That should be the discussions at the UN and not the anti-Israel agenda.
Thank you. Hillel, if you can unmute yourself. Thank you.
Thank you. On its 75th anniversary, it’s time for the United Nations to live up to its principles, to stop electing the world’s worst dictatorships to human rights bodies and to stop singling out and demonizing the world’s only Jewish state most of its time. We’ve created a new database. It’s available at unwatch.org/database. And that lists which dictatorships are on the Human Rights Council at any given point, which abusers of women’s rights are sitting on the UN women agency and other such human rights bodies as well as a list of all the anti-Israel resolutions as well as resolutions on every other country to give key information, key facts, key statistics, the texts as well as an opportunity for people to sign a petition and take action. So, I think it’s vital if we want change for people to have the facts and to be able to take action and that’s what we hope our new database will do and make the UN live up to its founding purpose.
Thank you. Theresa.
After all these months of a pandemic having such a devastating impact on so many people’s lives, I think it has to be a priority for the UN to radically shake up all its initiatives on public health so that the international community is better prepared next time this happens. It’s not just COVID. We face huge risks potentially from antimicrobial resistance or from other diseases in the future. And I think the pandemic has demonstrated that there is a great deal more that we need by way of international cooperation in order to address these concerns for the future. And I think that the work that’s underway on climate change, there has been, I think, some good work done in the UN on that, with their ability for tackling this, they need to do more.
Thank you, Theresa. Mitch.
Thanks, Michael. I mean, I guess in summary, our multilateral stock-take I referred to before, we think that we’ve got to work to ensure global institutions are [fit for] future purpose and that they’re accountable to member states. In terms of how we ensure this, I think, it’s important to recognize that the UN is the only place in the world where every country is represented. And this is often the only place where countries talk to each other. And just, finally, Michael, technology has enabled a lot of business to be transacted during COVID, but in diplomacy, people matter. We post people overseas because people can do the things that only people can do and that is develop relationships and that’s critical.
Thank you very much. Could I thank the panel? Can I particularly thank Albert Dadon for putting this all together, Mitch in particular for getting up at 3:00 a.m. in the morning to join us. Hopefully, we’ll see you all next year, in Jerusalem.
A link to the podcast, which only begins after Mitch Fifield speaks, is here:
In 2009, Albert Dadon, an Australian businessman/musician, founded the ‘Australia Israel Leadership Dialogue’ which a few years later became the ‘Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue’, and with some participants outside of that trio of nations, became the ‘International Institute for Strategic Leadership Dialogue’. Nowadays, the Dialogue participants usually meet in person at a conference in Jerusalem or London. But with Covid for the first time the Dialogue was online with podcasts as one distribution platform.