Continuing the discussion of international law from where we left off, it’s easy to criticize and even condemn multi-national institutions, even the most successful of them.
For example, today historians agree that NATO represents one of the most successful political and military alliances in human history. But during its entire history, many leaders (American and European, Right and Left) complained bitterly about the institution, decrying it as a “military occupation” or asking why US taxpayers had to pick up the tab for European countries that continually wobbled on which side to be on in the Cold War.
Yet despite these critiques (some of which were legitimate), this remarkable multi-lateral organization managed to keep at peace a continent that had been at war for centuries. And given how many people during the Cold War insisted that the only options for the West were capitulation or nuclear annihilation, NATO (plus patience) showed that there was an acceptable alternative to this false choice.
Given its size, pretentions and corruption, The United Nations is an easier target for similar criticism. Yet it too has played an important role in the post-war world.
Take the Security Council, a part of the UN often criticized as undemocratic (given that it preserves in amber outdated international power relationships, giving the victors from World War II veto power over binding decisions made by the UN as a whole). If you think of the Security Council as presiding over a global democracy, this is clearly unfair. But if you look at it as means for facilitating communication between superpowers at odds with each other (like the US and USSR during the Cold War), the Council provided a way to diffuse tensions by presenting compromises that might be rejected if originating from one or the other Cold Warrior as UN proposals brought by “neutral” third parties.
In exchange for this important mediating role, it was required of participants to act as though the UN had more international authority than its actual clout would dictate. But this was OK for those who felt that organizations like the UN might eventually evolve into an organs of global governance. For by creating informal powers for such an organization and getting nations to act as though these powers were legally enforceable, there was hope that this informal legalism would formalize over time (much like many common law traditions eventually evolved into enforceable binding law within nations).
But for such fiction to eventually become reality, it was necessary that these informal practices perform a useful function (as they did during the Cold War) and that the leveraging of international organizations for narrow national purposes did not go too far.
Unfortunately, the temptation of powerful states to use newly emerging international institutions (not just the UN, but also NGOs working to create codes of international and human rights law) for their own partisan purposes was just too great. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the exploitation of these weak institutions by Israel’s political enemies.
Much of the “rap sheet” BDSers routinely read out regarding Israel’s alleged violation of international law is made up of accusations brought before organizations like the UN to be voted on by what has been called the “Automatic Majority.” This term originally referred the UN General Assembly where the fact that every nation (small or large, democratic or not) got a single vote, allowing ruthless actors (like the Soviet Union) to stitch together a coalition that could be counted on to condemn the behavior of the USSR’s democratic enemies while ensuring that the human rights spotlight would rarely if ever be turned on the members of this automatic majority.
Sadly, this exploitation did not go away in the post Cold War world but instead was picked up by other powerful groups (such as the Arab League and Organization the Islamic Conference) which, via their numbers and a corrupt bloc voting system within the UN, can be assured that any accusation they make against Israel will become “law” (or at least an official declaration that Israel is in breach of law).
At the same time, these very organizations (which represent the greatest human rights abusers on the planet) are careful to never bring the crimes of members of the automatic majority to the floor, thus keeping the finger pointing eternally at Israel (and, on occasion, the US).
Yes, there are occasions when the accused rouse themselves to fight back (as when the US got the UN’s infamous 1975 Zionism = Racism resolution reversed in 1991). But for the most part, this exploitation of weak international institutions by powerful national interests has become the norm in international affairs. To restate a simple example I’ve used before, how much more likely is it that Saudi Arabia will obey UN resolutions regarding human rights for women vs. the UN following Saudi Arabia’s lead regarding the passing global blasphemy laws?
When the 1975 Zionism = Racism resolution was debates in the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then the US ambassador to the UN) prophetically warned that the vote would send a message to the world that international institutions created after World War II to keep the peace were becoming tools to help the powerful wage war by other means.
Many remember his famous quote that “The United States…does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” But fewer remember the prophetic warning he gave to smaller nations (including many voting Yes on this “infamous act”) that they were destroying the very institutions they might one day need to turn to if they ever found themselves targeted by powerful predators.
Israel will likely survive the slings and arrows thrown at her by accusers using international organizations, human rights institutions and human rights itself as tools of propaganda. It’s not entirely clear that the same can be said for the institutions that have allowed themselves to be turned into weapons of war for someone else’s benefit.
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