Friday, April 07, 2006

Jane Norton: UN imbalance thwarts aim of moral fairness

The United Nations states that its central purpose is to preserve world peace. To this end it has played a major role in helping to defuse international crises and resolve protracted ones. It has worked to prevent conflicts from breaking out and, where a conflict breaks out, takes actions to redress the underlying causes and lay the foundation for durable peace.

Or so it says. And so I thought until I was present - at the 50th session of the Commission on the Status of Women - for the passing of a resolution that was so biased and irrational that I wondered how the UN could make the claims with a straight face.

That resolution was the one condemning Israeli treatment of Palestinian women.

We all accept that the situation in the Palestinian territories could be better. Much better. I wonder, then, how this resolution helps solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict let alone helps Palestinian women. I have tried to think how it does help, but could not. I could, however, find four reasons why it does not help.

First, the resolution is horribly one-sided. It condemns Israeli treatment of Palestinian women but omits to condemn Palestinian treatment of Palestinian women and Palestinian treatment of Israeli women.

I am a fierce advocate for women's rights regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. That is largely why I found this resolution so galling.

Once again a political battle is being waged with women's bodies as the weapon for political attack.

This resolution was not really concerned with Palestinian women and their suffering. If that had been the case then it would have deplored the practice of encouraging Palestinian women to become suicide bombers and human shields. It would have condemned the limited citizenship rights given to Palestinian women living in Jordan. It would have criticised the treatment of Palestinian women labourers throughout the Middle East.

Instead, it solely condemned Israeli treatment of Palestinian women.

Second, the resolution breached a fundamental principle of the rule of law. If it is thought important to be governed under law rather than the whim of an individual or government, then the law must be the same for everyone. This is the case in the UN. Here it is also essential that the language of these resolutions be general.

All resolutions passed in this session of the Commission on the Status of Women were in this general form - except one.

Third, it prejudges the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus hindering future negotiations. If the UN is truly serious about playing a role in fostering peace between Israelis and Palestinians then it is counterproductive to repeatedly pass resolutions condemning only one party to the conflict.

To persist in doing so makes it nearly impossible for the UN to present itself as a mediating body in peacemaking.

Fourth, resolutions of this sort threaten the credibility of the UN and the willingness of states to participate in the future. As most of its resolutions are not binding, the UN depends on member states to implement the resolutions themselves.

If the UN demonstrates constant bias against one member state then that state's willingness to participate in its processes is severely diminished. And the credibility and effectiveness of the UN is threatened.

So why is a resolution that is ridiculous at best, and dangerous at worst, able to be passed?

The answer lies in the composition of the UN, whose 191 states have agreed to the obligations of the charter. Each state has one vote. There are almost 60 Muslim states and just one Jewish state, so you don't need a doctorate in mathematics to figure out why a hugely disproportionate number of resolutions are passed against Israel.

Research by Professor Anne Bayefsky, of Columbia University, shows that more than a quarter of the resolutions over 40 years condemning human rights violations have been directed at Israel. Yet there has never been a single resolution about repression of the civil and political rights of 1.3 billion people in China, or the million female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia kept in what amounts to slavery.

Every year, UN organisations are required to produce at least 25 reports on alleged human rights violations by Israel, but not one on an Iranian criminal justice system which mandates punishments such as crucifixion, stoning and amputation. Or against Nigeria whose Islamic courts have sentenced women to death by stoning for adultery (ironically, it was Nigeria who proposed a very similar resolution against Israel), or against Muslim nations that give impunity to men who murder female family members in the name of preserving the family's "honour".

Or against Libya, which has arbitrarily imprisoned women and girls indefinitely because they were seen as "vulnerable to engaging in moral misconduct".

All this means that while the UN claims to be neutral - with each state having the same voice as any other regardless of wealth, size or population - it is open to the same sort of manipulation as any other political forum. The difference is that the UN presents itself as being above all that.

Since working at the UN, I have seen behaviour more akin to that of petulant teenagers rather than that of an organisation boasting the lofty ideal of promoting world peace. I have seen states argue for days over the irrelevant matter of a document's punctuation in order to stop the passing of resolutions protecting the rights of women. Examples of such stonewalling are endless, but the resolution against Israeli treatment of Palestinian women shocked me the most.

I had naive faith that the UN might actually have the potential to create a better world - a world committed to resolving conflicts between states, not fuelling them.

Sadly, it is now hard to see the UN as anything other than a vehicle for manipulation by member states with their own political agendas.

If that is the case, the UN should relinquish its claim to moral legitimacy.

* Jane Norton, an Auckland lawyer, is an associate-in-law at Columbia University in New York and a Fulbright scholar studying for her master of laws.

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