UN Watch is a Geneva-based organization closely associated with rightist sectors in the United States and Israel that claims to monitor compliance of the United Nations with its charter. According to its website, UN Watch "serves as the central forum for discussing international economic and social issues, and for formulating policy recommendations addressed to Member States and the United Nations system."
Despite efforts to paint itself as an independent watchdog group, UN Watch has repeatedly been accused of having a staunchly "pro-Israel" bias and on outlook on Middle East peace that is closely in line with that of Israel's right-wing Likud Party. For many years, the group was funded by the American Jewish Committee (AJC)—publisher of the neoconservative flagship journal Commentary, whose editors have included Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol—which has made use of its offices in Geneva, as well as those of other affiliated groups, including the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.
A non-exhaustive Right Web search of Form 990 filings from 2002-2009 uncovered more than $2.3 million in donations to UN Watch—as well as to its U.S. fundraising arm, the American Friends of UN Watch—from Israel-centric and conservative-leaning foundations. The most important funder during this period was the American Jewish Committee, which appears to have given the group some $1.8 million between 2002-2007. Other donors have included the Newton & Rochelle Becker Foundation, which has supported several neoconservative organizations like the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum, and the Shillman Foundation, which has also supported MEMRI. The Becker Foundation has been described by the Center for American Progress as a primary funder of the so-called "Islamophobia network," an informal grouping of prominent foundations, opinion makers, and media personalities that spread negative impressions about Islam and Muslims in the United States. MEMRI, like UN Watch, is a "nonpartisan" watchdog group with an identifiable right-wing, pro-Israel slant. (For Right Web's full report on UN Watch's 990s, click here).
Much of UN Watch's work involves critiquing criticism of Israel expressed by members of the UN Human Rights Council and promoting hardline views toward Islamic countries. This frequently entails campaigns against the inclusion of anti-Israel countries on the council, including recent initiatives against Syria under Bashar al-Assad and Libya under the late Muammar Gaddafi.
UN Watch director Hillel Neuer has penned numerous op-eds aimed at neutralizing the UN body's criticism of Israel by pointing to human rights abuses elsewhere. Shunting aside the council's work on Israel and taking aim at Libya in a March 2011 op-ed, for example, Neuer wrote that "Until the United Nations' highest human rights officials exorcise their Israel obsession and fix their broken moral compass, murderers like Gadhafi will continue to enjoy impunity." In a comparable January 2011 piece for the NY Daily News, he charged that the UNHRC's Advisory Committee was "dominated by apologists for the world's worst dictators."
Observers argue that the group is biased when it comes to the rights situation in the Middle East. In his Guardian blog, commentator Ian Williams argued that UN Watch has been as "guilty of hypocrisy" as some Human Rights Council members. He wrote: "Anyone carrying a hypocrisy detector through the UN would be distracted by its continuous beeping, as one would expect in places filled with politicians and diplomats. But passing UN Watch's office would set it beeping as well. If the organization could point to a single occasion when it had condemned manifest Israeli transgressions of the human rights of Palestinians, it would give itself a secure platform from which to criticize the human rights council. UN Watch rightly criticizes Sudan's refusal to let in a human rights council delegation into Darfur. But then how, with a straight face, can it avoid criticizing Israel for refusing to allow in rapporteurs from the same council?"
UN Watch has also criticized those who have pointed to the one-sided nature of the "war on terror," in particular Islamic countries that have complained about how the "war" has been aimed mainly at Muslims. In a 2007 commentary about preparatory meetings in Geneva, Switzerland for a global conference on racism, UN Watch took aim at Pakistan, which was representing the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the meetings, for Pakistan's criticism of "religious hatred [and] racial profiling in the fight against terrorism, and the rejection of diversity and multiculturalism." UN Watch rightly pointed out intolerant tendencies in many Muslim countries, but then went on to say: "Pakistan—a country wherein gang rape is a court-ordered punishment for women who commit the crime of speaking to the wrong tribesman—is, of course, directing this charge [of rejection of diversity] against Western countries, and them alone. Countries like the United States, England, Holland—where anyone can pretty much do as they please—are the ones accused here of 'rejection of diversity and multiculturalism.'"
An example of UN Watch's approach to criticism of Israel at the Human Rights Council came in September 2009, when the council received the conclusions of the "Goldstone Report," a UN investigation led by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone that accused both Israeli forces and Hamas of war crimes during Israel's 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza. Lauded by advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, the Goldstone Report recommended that if both the Israeli government and Hamas authorities fail to conduct impartial investigations into the crimes, the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Joining a host of rightist commentators in the United States, Europe, and Israel—including the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg and former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton—UN Watch harshly criticized the report. In a commentary published by the New York Daily News, UN Watch stated, "Submitted to the UN Human Rights Council yesterday was a 575-page 'report' fit for the garbage can. Better yet, for the shredder. Focusing on Israel's war in Gaza, the document is a transparently biased hatchet job, written at the behest of an organization whose sole bent has been to portray the Jewish state as the world's worst human rights abuser."
In an irony-tinged commentary on the outrage the report caused among some supporters of Israel, Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation pointed to the strong Israeli connections of the report's principal author, Justice Goldstone: "The report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict is outrageous, a disgrace. The mission's head, Richard Goldstone, was the chair of the Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, chair of the World ORT education organization with more than 150 schools in Israel and a self-declared friend of Israel whose daughter made aliyah—Zionist emigration to Israel—and she told Israeli army radio this week, 'Israel is more important to me than anything.' Wait a moment, that doesn't sound right. Ah, here it is—the report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict is outrageous, a disgrace. The UN Human Rights Council is composed of non-democratic, Israel-hating, human rights-violating nations and the mission was born in sin to delegitimize Israel and excuse terrorism. That second narrative has been pushed harder since the report's publication, but they are equally ridiculous."
UN Watch's director Hillel Neuer has helped spur criticism of the group through his confrontational commentary. For example, in a September 2009 op-ed for the conservative Canadian newspaper the National Post, Neuer accused the anti-globalization writer Naomi Klein of having Nazi-like qualities and criticized her for supporting a boycott of a film festival in Tel Aviv. In the article, titled "The Strange, Enduring Rage of Naomi Klein," Neuer points to a 1990 article Klein penned for her college newspaper in which she criticized Israel's occupation of Palestine. Neuer provides several quotes from the article, including, "A Jewish education is an education of fear. Jews made the shift from victims to victimizers with terrifying ease." Neuer then compares Klein's article to the notorious Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, contending that it expresses "Goebbels-like venom." He concludes, "The path to Middle East peace requires mutual dialogue, recognition and compromise—not irrational boycotts motivated by selective morality, anger and rage."
Neuer himself has exhibited a strong tendency toward "selective morality, anger and rage." In March 2007, Neuer drew criticism when he used his opportunity to give testimony at the UN Human Right Council to rail against the body. "In truth, the despots who run this council," opined Neuer, "couldn't care less about Palestinians or any human rights. They seek to demonize Israeli democracy, to delegitimize the Jewish state, to scapegoat the Jewish people. They also seek something else—to distort and pervert the very language and idea of human rights."
The president of the council at the time, Mexico's Luis Alfonso De Alba, responded: "For the first time in this session I will not express thanks for that statement. I shall point out to the distinguished representative of the organization that just spoke ... if you'd kindly listen to me, I am sorry but I am not in a position to thank you for your statement. I should mention that I will not tolerate any similar statements in the council. The way in which the members of this council are referred to, and indeed the way in which the council was referred to—all of this is inadmissible. In the memory of the persons you referred to, founders of the Human Rights Commission, and for the good of human rights, I would urge you in any future statement to observe some minimum proper conduct and language, otherwise any statement you make in similar tones to those used today will be taken out of the records."
Commenting on the episode, the Guardian's Ian Williams wrote: "Last week, the ill-advised president of the council, Mexican diplomat Luis Alfonso De Alba, who usually politely and formulaically thanks the 'distinguished representatives' for their remarks, made a point of saying that he was not thanking the UN Watch representative, Hillel Neuer—although, to be fair, he did still call him 'distinguished.' ... Whatever the reason, De Alba played right into his hands. The martyrdom of Hillel Neuer is now played up in all the usual suspect neocon places, from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page to the New York Sun and Canada's National Post. The video has been circulated widely, with a call for donations, and the usual cluckings about the UN. UN Watch will not be getting a cheque from me. Not being thanked is not an attack on human rights. Being threatened with censorship in the future could be. But UN Watch refers to this speech as being censored. 'Banned: the speech the UN refused to hear,' shouts the email that UN Watch sent out. Which is odd, because the clip it is linking to on YouTube actually comes from a UNTV webcast, which it acknowledges when it invites people to download the Realplayer version."
Origins, History, Activities
UN Watch was founded by Morris Abram, a former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations who died in 2000. According to his UN Watch bio, "Ambassador Abram served five American presidents—John F. Kennedy, as general counsel of the Peace Corps; Lyndon B. Johnson, as U.S. representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights and as co-chairman of the planning session of the 1965 White House Conference on Civil Rights; Jimmy Carter, as chairman of the president's Commission for the Study of the Ethical Problems of Medicine; Ronald Reagan, as vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and George Bush, as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva."
Like many Israel supporters in and out of the United States, Abram was particularly concerned about expressions of anti-Israel bias at the UN. In his July 14, 1999 testimony to the House Committee on International Relations, Abram listed a number of UN actions that he claimed pointed to a pattern of unfair treatment toward Israel. His allegations included: (1) "Israel is the only state whose alleged violations of human rights occupy a single agenda item at the annual UN Commission on Human Rights. The violations that occur in the remaining 184 Member States are examined collectively under another single agenda item. Only Israel has its name prominently targeted;" (2) "[Israel] is the only state whose aggressors in three wars have not been challenged by the Security Council. It is the only state out of 185 UN Member States excluded from membership in any regional group, rendering it ineligible to serve on the Security Council, the UN Commission on Human Rights, and other important UN decision-making bodies;" and (3) "It is the only state investigated by a Special Rapporteur with an open-ended mandate that presupposes Israel's human rights violations. Special Rapporteurs for all other countries have mandates of limited duration with objective fact-finding missions."
However, unlike right-wing sectors of the "Israel lobby" in the United States, including many neoconservatives, Abram actively promoted continued U.S. support for the United Nations, arguing in his 1999 House testimony that UN Watch "categorically supports the UN as an indispensable institution. The United States should pay its past dues to the UN as a matter of national honor and in recognition of the UN's importance. In spite of the UN's flaws, it is inconceivable that the United States withhold support from the only truly global organization in such an interdependent world." He added: "I recognize and take into full account the vagaries and contradictions in international diplomacy. I accept the primacy of realpolitik in international relations, and that some of the mistreatment of Israel within the UN may be attributed to such factors. However, the accumulation of attacks against Israel within the UN, as now occurs against no other State, cannot be simply dismissed as politics."
In recognition of UN Watch's work, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote in a 1997 letter to Abram, quoted on the UN Watch website: "I deeply appreciate the valuable work performed by UN Watch. I believe that informed and independent evaluation of the United Nations' activities will prove a vital source as we seek to adapt the Organization to the needs of a changing world. I can promise you that I will pay close attention to your observations and view in the years ahead."
Under Neuer, however, UN Watch has increasingly taken on the mantle of many hardline critics of the international body. In a September 29, 2006 press release, the group argued: "This afternoon in Geneva the UN Human Rights Council will return to condemnations of Israel, with the presentation of new reports as mandated by prior resolutions that were criticized as one-sided by Western democracies and human rights groups. 'Sadly, the constructive part of this Council session—reports by the Council's 40 independent monitors on human rights situations around the world—is now over,' said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch. ... 'Anyone observing the Council's agenda over the next week might easily mistake it for a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.'"
In a 2006 "Take Action" posting on its website, UN Watch asked its readers to sign on to an e-mail petition urging the ouster of Iran from the United Nations. Suggested content for the e-mail was: "It's time to tell Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his promotion of hatred and destruction—his repeated denial of the Holocaust, his explicit incitement to eliminate Israel, his mad pursuit of nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community—carries a price. A government that systematically denies one genocide while actively seeking another stands in contempt of the principles of the United Nations."
Although largely focused on issues in the Middle East and anti-Israel bias in the United Nations, UN Watch also addresses other international topics. It has posted reports about human rights in Cuba, promoted stronger UN action in Darfur, and critiqued the formulation of the new UN Human Rights Council, which, according to Neuer, has proven to be a "profound disappointment." In a September 7, 2006 editorial for the International Herald Tribune, Neuer argued that among the council's many failures is that it has "provided further encouragement to Islamic extremists by adopting a resolution against 'defamation of religions'—a thinly veiled endorsement of the fury of violence that followed the Danish cartoon controversy and an attempt to silence Middle East dissidents by equating democracy with blasphemy."
Although it advocates a "just application of UN Charter principles," UN Watch's preoccupation with Middle East affairs is almost exclusively focused on anti-Semitism and violations committed by Islamic extremists. On November 1, 2007, UN Watch published "United Nations and Anti-Semitism: 2004-2007 Report Card." Among the 13 joint letters and statements posted on its website between April 2004 and September 2006, nearly half were concerned with issues of anti-Semitism and threats to Israel. Not one mentioned alleged abuses of Israeli security forces in the Occupied Territories. Why this selectivity? Because, according to UN Watch, "the disproportionate attention and unfair treatment applied by the UN toward Israel over the years offers an object lesson (though not the only one) in how due process, equal treatment, and other fundamental principles of the UN Charter are often ignored or selectively upheld."