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Salvaging the United Nations

January 26, 2011 10:54 pm 0 comments



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The northern wall of Ralph Bunche Park, engraved with the famous quotation from Isaiah 2:4. Photo: Capt. Phoebus.

Opposite the United Nations, on the northern wall of Ralph Bunche Park, is engraved the famous quotation from Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Founded on such utopian ideals, the UN is mandated with ‘reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person’ and ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’

During Shabbat services last week at the Park East Synagogue in New York, the congregation was addressed by the Secretary- General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon and the President of the General Assembly, Joseph Deiss. In attendance was a diverse group of UN Ambassadors and Consuls General representing countries from across the globe. This remarkable gathering could only have been orchestrated by the synagogue’s highly regarded Rabbi Arthur Schneier. The event was held in honor of Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th.

Ban Ki -moon spoke of the UN as an organization that was created “in part to prevent a Holocaust from ever happening again,” and “to speak out for those who would otherwise not be heard.” He presented a replica of the ‘B’ that appears in the infamous inscription in the gates of Auschwitz: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ and explained that, “prisoners at Auschwitz had been ordered to make that sign, and in their anger they decided to take a stand. If you look carefully at pictures of the gate, you will see that the ‘B’ is upside down. What might appear as a mere piece of design is actually a daring act of defiance. Hidden within the German message emblazoned on that gate, the prisoners of Auschwitz delivered a message of their own: all is not right here. Something is upside down, brutally so.”

The speech was moving and his sentiments were echoed shortly after by the President of the General Assembly, Joseph Deiss.

But let’s face it; despite these principled ideals that were no doubt expressed in genuine sincerity, many agree that the UN in its current state is a sham, an absolute mockery of the very ideals on which it was founded.

An organization that has allowed Libya a seat at its Human Rights Council, can never be taken seriously as an authority on Human Rights. Sadly, the UN has become not only a place of refuge but a platform for many of the world’s most oppressive regimes and worst human rights violators.

At her last public appearance prior to completing her tenure, Israel’s previous Ambassador to the UN, Prof. Gabriela Shalev, harshly criticized the UN saying:

“Sadly, there are countless human tragedies and immeasurable human suffering around the globe. Yet the United Nations reserves the overwhelming majority of its condemnation only for Israel. This can only be interpreted as the “politically correct” modern anti-Semitism. We cannot stop the witch-hunt against Israel that regularly takes place at the United Nations today.” She then concluded by saying that, “this hypocrisy, this double standard, this double talk, which is unleashed inside the United Nations, is checked only by one country, Israel’s best and closest ally, the United States of America.”

Both Prof. Shalev and the current Israeli representative to the United Nations shared with me that what they find hardest about working at the UN, is the volume of libelous accusations leveled against Israel on a regular basis.

Many believe that there are rare instances when the right to freedom of speech and expression is forfeited by an individual or organization, namely when this speech endangers the lives or jeopardizes the safety of others. Whilst there are others that may argue that no voice ever that deserves to be silenced, all should agree that to empower these individuals by placing them in positions of responsibility is simply criminal.

In truth, if the UN is to serve as an organ of morality it certainly can’t be achieved within the current framework and some serious restructuring is in order.

The first thing that needs to be made clear is that membership at the table of civilized nations is not a free ticket, and there are certain principles that member states will need to uphold. Not all methods of government are equal, and often the yardstick is the level of equality that is shared by all citizens of a particular state.

The UN must implement a thorough grading system whereby countries are assessed based on their human rights records, the freedom of their societies, and the extent by which the government was democratically chosen to represent its citizens. Membership at the UN should be multi-tiered, with levels of authority granted according to the above grades, and only those nations led by representative governments will wield the power to form resolutions and implement policy.

In some ways the system would be similar to the criteria used by other international alliances, except that the level of economic stability, education or natural resources of a country will not be taken into account. What will set the UN apart is that the grounds for acceptance and thus becoming a voice of authority on  an international stage will be purely moral.

What would it take to implement change on this level? Perhaps a failure similar to the one that prompted the disbanding of the League of Nations? After all, what is the value of the UN, if it is unable to sustain peace among the world’s peoples? What is the value of an international body that has strayed so far from its charter that it has all but lost the voice of morality that is so urgently needed?

For some of the world’s nations, we live in an unprecedented age of freedom and opportunity; for others, oppression and prejudice live on. If the UN is to truly serve as “a voice for those who would otherwise not be heard,” drastic change is essential.

The Author is the director of the Algemeiner Journal and the GJCF and can be e-mailed at

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