Many are surprised to learn that the institutions at the forefront of international law once served as allies of the Jewish people. Decades ago, the tragedy of the Holocaust inspired the international legal community to remedy its failure to protect Jews and human rights at large.
Within just three years of the Holocaust, the international legal community had achieved unprecedented milestones. It founded the United Nations—a key player in international law. It tried Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials, which adjudicated crimes against humanity for the first time. It also issued the UN Declaration of Human Rights, seeking to prevent future Holocausts.
While these initiatives all involved the international community writ large, the UN made a specific commitment to Jewish security as well. Hence, in 1947, it voted in favor of recognizing a Jewish state and safe haven in Israel.
Though the international legal community proved to be an early ally to the Jewish people, times changed. Instead of championing Jewish welfare, the UN now attacks its safety net by demonizing Israel—the target of more than 70 percent of all General Assembly resolutions to condemn a specific state since 2015. This is the definition of a double standard.
By aiming to delegitimize the Jewish state, after initially supporting its international recognition, the UN has fueled a great misconception—that Israel is a rogue state that disrespects international law. This has wrongly inspired many to hate the Jewish state, and inevitably, the Jewish people.
Forty-seven countries, led by Austria, have just pledged to combat antisemitism at the UN Human Rights Council. While refreshing, it is sad that this initiative took so long and failed to inspire more support in an institution supposedly devoted to human rights. How could the UN have undergone such a transformation from ally to antisemitism enabler? The answer has to do with the emergence of new, non-democratic UN member states.
Institutions are only as good as their membership. When the UN was founded, its members were largely democratic. Of its 51 founding members, at least 28 are democracies, per the Economist’s latest Democracy Index.
Back then, the UN was committed to human rights for all peoples, Jews included. These sympathies were likely a consequence of the UN’s democratic nature. After all, “democracy is contingent on the respect of rights and freedoms,” as the UN declared in 2012.
With time, however, the UN transformed into a democratic forum for dictatorships. Largely as a consequence of decolonization and the USSR’s dissolution, UN membership exploded after 1959, from 83 states to 193 today, with Asia and Africa gaining dramatically more representation. African states went from claiming four seats in the UN’s original assembly, to 54 today—more than one-fourth of the total number of seats. During that same time period, Asian state membership grew from nine to 47 members.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech at the opening of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Afghanistan in Geneva on August 24, 2021. – The UN rights chief voiced grave concern at the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban swept into power, saying their treatment of women would mark a “fundamental red line”. The UN Human Rights Council discuss the text during a special session requested just days after the Taliban took effective control of Afghanistan on August 15.
Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP/Getty Images
These were good and necessary developments. However, many of the emerging states were, and continue to be, led by undemocratic regimes. For example, of 50 surveyed African countries, 42 are non-democracies. Of 45 Asian countries surveyed, 32 are non-democracies. After the USSR combusted into 15 newly independent republics, 12 became non-democracies.
As non-democracies gained UN representation, democracy suffered—out of 167 surveyed countries, only 75 are now democracies. With such high representation, non-democracies have managed to hijack the most sacrosanct of UN bodies, including the Human Rights Council (HRC).
Founded in 2006, the HRC has largely set the world’s human rights agenda. And yet, of the council’s available annual rosters, non-democracies carried the majority in seven of its 15 years.
The HRC’s non-democratic members have sought to deflect attention from their own abuses. Many have even become repeat HRC members, a necessity for maintaining influence.
These repeat players include the greatest of human rights abusers, including China, which has appeared in 14 of 15 annual rosters despite its genocide of Uyghurs; Cuba, which appeared 14 times despite a long record of repressing dissent; and Qatar, which appeared 12 times despite engaging in modern slavery.
Unsurprisingly, none of these countries have been condemned by the HRC. This likely reflects how non-democracies have reportedly used “bloc voting and excessive procedural manipulation to prevent debate of their human rights abuses,” per a Congressional Research Service publication.
Non-democracies have instead focused the UN’s condemnations on another country. Following the world’s track record of blaming the Jew, they chose Israel. The HRC has peppered Israel with 56 percent of all of its condemnations, and Agenda Item 7—focused on Israel—is the council’s only permanent agenda item dedicated to scrutinizing the affairs of a single country.
What’s more, non-democracies have scapegoated Israel in the General Assembly. In 2019, Yemen and Kuwait sponsored anti-Israel resolutions 14 times, while Cuba and Jordan featured 13 times. Only once were the sponsors of an anti-Israel condemnation in the General Assembly largely democratic. This disparity demonstrates how non-democracies shamelessly scapegoat Israel, while democracies generally do not.
In sum, the Jewish people once enjoyed protection by the international legal community. This alliance, fueled by post-Holocaust remorse, was short-lived. It waned as non-democracies, in need of a scapegoat to evade accountability, came to dominate the U.N. They blamed Israel—the Jew among nations. And just like that, the international legal community forgot the lessons of antisemitism that fueled its greatest achievements.
Jordan Cope is the Director of Policy Education for StandWithUs.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.