Richard Schifter is not a gifted orator.
The former U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, who served during the 1980s, delivered the keynote address of what was billed as the Durban II Counter-Conference Program at Fordham University Law School here on Monday, and his presentation was lengthy, dry and delivered in a near monotone.
But what he had to say was fascinating, tracing in detail how it came to be that the UN, created six decades ago to champion human rights and freedoms, was “hijacked” over time by anti-democratic countries opposed to Western culture, primarily the U.S. and Israel.
Schifter offered a comprehensive description of how much of the positive work of the UN General Assembly ended around 1970 as a result of “the extraordinarily clever maneuvering of the totalitarians represented at the UN and the failure of the democracies to match their clever manipulations.” And the individual he cited as being most responsible for this reversal was Cuban leader Fidel Castro who, according to Schifter, appointed a highly skilled group of diplomats to help build “a network of institutions that would operate in opposition to the United States.”
The weeklong conference was convened by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, organized in 1983 to “defend the civil and human rights of Jews and others in the U.S. and abroad,” and was co-sponsored by more than two dozen prominent Jewish organizations as well as The Jewish Week.
Mark Landis, vice chair of the AAJLJ, noted at the outset that the program was taking place at the same time as the Durban II conference in Geneva, and was meant to serve as “a counterweight” to the discussions there on racism, genocide, xenophobia, gender discrimination and religious discrimination, with each day of the week devoted to one of those topics.
The difference being that the local program was intended to advocate for human rights rather than bash the U.S. and Israel.
Less than 40 people were in the Fordham Law School auditorium for Monday’s session, but one of the speakers, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, cast that fact in a positive light.
“The attendance here is a sign of our victory,” he asserted, noting that if the U.S. had decided to attend Durban II instead of boycotting the program, the auditorium would have been packed. He credited the year and a half planning by his and other Jewish organizations to convince Washington not to take part in Durban II. The government’s decision was finalized only the day prior to the conference’s opening session.
The U.S. determined that Durban II would likely be a repeat of the first Durban conference in 2001, which turned into an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish affair. The U.S. and Israel walked out of that conference.
Hoenlein said the presence, and remarks, by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Durban II “turned the conference hall into a hall of shame.” The Iranian president called Israel a “cruel and repressive racist regime.” Diplomats from many Western nations walked out of the hall as Ahmadinejad was speaking.
He said Jewish organizations were not prepared eight years ago for the verbal assault on Israel at Durban, but that they were this time. And Hoenlein said that with anti-Semitism at record levels around the world, a conference dealing with the topics of Durban II would be particularly important, but that it was being led by countries that are among the world’s most blatant violators of human rights.
Schifter, in his remarks, described how Castro got Cuba admitted to the Non-Aligned Movement within the UN, and over time helped turn the Non-Aligned and a parallel organization, the Group of 77, into “mouthpieces for the Moscow line.”
He did that in part by linking with the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Schifter said. A key moment took place in September 1973 when, upon being challenged by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who wanted the Non-Aligned to actually remain non-aligned, Castro “broke diplomatic relations with Israel and added Israel to the United States on his and the entire Soviet bloc’s enemies list,” Schifter said.
Castro was not an advocate of the Palestinians, nor was he anti-Israel; his goal was to oppose the U.S., and he knew his breaking ties with Israel could make Qaddafi an ally in securing votes from the OIC.
Soon after, when the General Assembly was considering a resolution pressuring South Africa to end apartheid, the Castro-Qaddafi group got Burundi (whose army the previous year killed 100,000 Hutus because of their ethnicity) to offer an amendment referring to “the unholy alliance between Portuguese colonialism, South African racism, Zionism and Israeli imperialism.” It was adopted by a 2-to-1 majority.
“By linking Zionism with South African racism, many of the non-Muslim states of Africa were brought into the new alliance,” Schifter said. “This was the first show in the drumfire that has continued at the UN to this very day.”
He criticized the U.S. for being too polite and passive in the UN, refusing to use its clout, as in not making the connection between foreign aid it provides to countries and how those countries vote in the world body. And he blamed the U.S. for not doing “the needed parliamentary spade work at the UN.”
While Cuba’s diplomats remain at the UN for years, becoming experienced in multilateral diplomacy, the U.S. and other countries rotate these posts. In addition, Schifter said, many countries allow their representatives to make their own voting decisions, lacking the discipline of Cuba and other anti-Western nations that receive and carry out specific instructions from their governments.
Despite the actions of the UN today, Schifter does not advocate giving up on it, asserting that the world body suffers from a “disease from which it can be cured.” All that is needed, he said, is for the U.S., along with other democracies, “to engage in more effective parliamentary work at the UN than it does now.”
Only 22 percent of the UN’s member states are classified (by Freedom House) as “not free,” and the percentage of free countries has increased from 27 percent in 1975 to 46 percent today. The challenge, Schifter concluded, was for the U.S. “to spend the time and energy” to persuade democracies to return the UN to its noble principles.n
The weeklong AAJLJ conference closing session will be held on Friday, April 24 (noon- 2 p.m.), with remarks from Canada’s former justice minister Irwin Cotler, Israel’s deputy UN Ambassador Daniel Carmon and others. The program is free and open to the public, at Fordham Law School, 140 W. 62nd St.