Australia’s changing votes on annual Israel-related resolutions at the UN General Assembly
The following piece by ECAJ co-CEO Peter Wertheim is featured in the latest edition of the Australian Jewish Quarterly.
Australia’s changing votes on annual Israel-related resolutions at the UN General Assembly
Australian Jewish Quarterly
The UN – not democratic and not a world parliament
Two pervasive beliefs about the United Nations (UN) are that it is a democratic body, and that it is the world’s parliament of States. Both beliefs are false.
There is nothing democratic about a body in which Liechtenstein, for example, with a population of fewer than 40,000 people has an equal vote with India, whose population exceeds 1.3 billion.
Worse, a majority of 55% of the world’s 195 states (including the UN’s 193 member States) are themselves ranked as dictatorships (not free) or semi-dictatorships (partially free) by Freedom House,1 an NGO co-founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt which conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.
On the UN Security Council, which has responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, the five permanent member States – the US, China, Russia, the UK and France – each has the power to veto any resolution, even if it is supported by all other Security Council members. There is nothing democratic about a veto.
Nor is the UN a parliament. It does not enact legislation. The vast majority of the resolutions it passes – even in the Security Council – are not of themselves legally binding. There are exceptions, such as when the Security Council decides to impose sanctions or authorise the use of force, but these are rare.
Given the numerical weakness of democratic states at the UN, the fact that the UN does not have the powers of a legislature is actually something to be thankful for. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of human rights.
The UN’s skewed record on human rights and Israel
In 2017, for example, not a single General Assembly resolution was passed on the human rights situation in China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Cuba, Turkey, Pakistan, Vietnam or Algeria. The ongoing appalling human rights violations perpetrated by Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia and Myanmar merited only one resolution each. In contrast, 21 resolutions were directed against Israel, as part of a bizarre ritual in which a body dominated by dictatorships and semi-dictatorships passes adverse judgement every year upon the only functioning democracy in the Middle East.
Little wonder that the last three UN Secretaries-General have excoriated organs of the UN for their “disproportionate focus” on Israel while neglecting “graver” crises in other parts of the world,2 and for their “decision to single out only one specific regional item [the Israel-Palestinian conflict] given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world”.3 On 23 April 2017, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that “a modern form of antisemitism is the denial of the right of the State of Israel to exist … [and that] Israel needs to be treated as any other state, with exactly the same rules.”4
Altogether there have been 23 annually-recurring resolutions relating to Israel and its conflicts with its neighbours. Further resolutions in 2007 and 2011 related to UN events marking key anniversary dates of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. The wording of certain resolutions has changed slightly in some years, but not the substance of the resolutions.
Some of these annual resolutions, considered in isolation, appear innocuous. The provision of aid to the Palestinians and calls for the peaceful settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict are not inherently anti-Israel.
Other resolutions, however, are overtly polemical and tendentious. One resolution, for example, deems the Fourth Geneva convention concerning the treatment of civilians in time of war to apply to the West Bank. It thus treats ‘Palestine’ as if it were both a State and a high contracting party to the Geneva Conventions, without adding a concomitant acknowledgement that, if it is to be treated as a State, ‘Palestine’ is internationally responsible for armed attacks against Israel that emanate from Palestinian territory, and Israel has an inherent right of self-defence against such attacks.
Another resolution singles out the settlements as an obstacle to peace, without mentioning continuing Palestinian rejectionism towards Israel, or Palestinian incitement and acts of terror, or Hamas’ rocket attacks targeted at Israel’s civilian population.
A further resolution asserts the “permanent sovereignty of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”, thereby pre-empting an outcome on an issue that the parties themselves have long agreed must be resolved through negotiations.
What is also objectionable is the one-sided and non-reciprocal nature of the resolutions as a whole. By making demands only of Israel, and demanding nothing of the Palestinians, these resolutions reward and encourage the Palestinians’ non-compliance with previous agreements and their refusal to return to negotiations.
These resolutions also encourage elements within the UN which are openly hostile to Israel to continue their one-sided, out-of-context criticisms of the Israeli government – the very practices which the last three UN Secretaries-General have disavowed. By focusing repetitively and disproportionately on Israel, the resolutions effectively give a leave pass to the intransigence and extremism of the other actors in the region which remain hostile to Israel’s very existence.
Such an approach has demonstrated its futility many times. The annual ritual of passing these resolutions hardens public opinion among both Israelis and Palestinians against making the painful concessions that peace will ultimately require from both sides, and achieving a just and lasting resolution of the conflict based on the principle of two States for two peoples – Israel as the State of the Jewish people living in peace side by side with a Palestinian State.
Australia’s voting record
Over the decades, Australia’s voting record on these annual General Assembly resolutions has undergone some significant changes, which have attracted little public comment.
Under the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke governments, and the first seven years of John Howard’s government, Australia joined most other countries in giving perfunctory support to a raft of Israel-related annual General Assembly resolutions, or at best abstaining. Indulging in a bit of empty symbolism seemed to be a small price to pay to avoid antagonising the oil-rich Arab states and, later, the 56 states of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation.
By 2003, however, Howard’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, had had enough of the hypocrisy. At his direction, between 2003 and 2007 Australia changed its vote from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’ or from ‘Yes’ to ‘Abstain’ or from ‘Abstain’ to ‘No’ on twelve of the more egregious of the twenty-plus annual UN resolutions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
However, between 2008 and 2012, when Labor was in power in Canberra, Australia gradually reverted to the old position that was critical of Israel on six of these twelve resolutions. (It did not change the more sympathetic stance towards Israel that had been introduced by Downer on the further six resolutions). Accordingly, under the last ALP Federal government, Australia’s overall voting record on these annual UN resolutions was somewhat more sympathetic to Israel than it had been under Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke, but less sympathetic than it had been during the last four years under Howard and Downer.
From 2013 onwards, when the Coalition was in power and Julie Bishop was Foreign Minister, Australia again went to a more pro-Israel position on three of the six resolutions on which Labor had changed back Australia’s vote. The nett result is that under a Coalition government since 2013, Australia’s votes have been more sympathetic to Israel on nine of the annual UN resolutions than had been the case prior to 2003.
Table of Australian votes at UN General Assembly on annual Israel-related resolutions
The Table above details changes to Australia’s votes on the annual Israel-related resolutions since 1996. The Table relates only to resolutions concerning Israel that are put forward annually in the UN General Assembly and its standing committees. It does not include one-off votes, such as:
- Australia’s vote in the UN General Assembly in 2003 against the referral of the security barrier issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion;
- Australia’s vote in the General Assembly against the adoption of the advisory opinion itself in 2004;
- Australia’s abstention vote on the status of ‘Palestine’ being elevated to that of an observer non-member ‘state’ in 2012; or
- the abstention vote on Jerusalem in the UN General Assembly emergency session on 21 December 2017.
It is clear from the Table that Alexander Downer, Australia’ s longest serving Foreign Minister, played a seminal role in moving Australia away from automatic support for the annual ganging up on Israel at the General Assembly. As noted, nine of the twelve voting changes in favour of Israel which he introduced on these resolutions have remained in place. What motivated these changes?
Downer, Israel and the UN
In 2005, Australia provided the plenary session of the General Assembly with a brief formal explanation for changing its vote on some of the 12 resolutions on which it had moved to a more pro-Israel position. Australia expressed its concern that these resolutions were “unbalanced in their criticism of Israel”, and disapproved of “the high level of United Nations Secretariat resources allocated to anti-Israeli activity”, adding: “The singling out of one side only for blame in the current situation is deeply unhelpful”. It concluded: “Those resolutions serve only to distract the parties from more pressing issues and do nothing to help the peace process”.5
Several of Alexander Downer’s public statements as Foreign Minister provide a more fulsome explanation. Fundamentally, he considered that Australia’s voting record in the UN should be based squarely on principle, and not merely on being in ‘good company’.
In a speech to the United Israel Appeal of NSW in 2005, after most of the changes to Australia’s votes on the Israel-related resolutions had been put into effect, he said:
“Since my first days as Foreign Minister, I have been presented with UN resolution after resolution.
And I soon discovered that too many of these resolutions are aimed at condemning Israel.
You would think by looking at these resolutions that this small country – with a population roughly equivalent to that of New South Wales and a land mass one fortieth its size – is responsible for the worst human rights violations and much of the world’s ills.
And this is in an era when many of the most egregious human rights violators are elevated to positions of responsibility in the UN.
A truly farcical situation!
And yet these UN General Assembly resolutions single Israel out for blame in the most inflammatory and biased of language.
Now the practice at the time when I first began as Foreign Minister was for the Australian Government to vote in “good company” – and by good company I use diplomatic speak for voting with people like the North Americans, the European Union and other developed countries.
But it soon dawned on me that Australia – an independent and morally upright nation – should not vote for things in the UN that we don’t believe in, just because there is so-called good company.
So I set about changing our practice, and now where we see an unbalanced resolution condemning Israel, we vote against it – irrespective of who stands beside us.
And by doing so and through our active lobbying efforts, we hope to gradually make others stand up for what they believe in.
We still have a long way to go.
When Australia voted last year in support of Israel’s right to defend itself, we were joined by only five other countries – out of a total UN membership of 191 countries.
We voted against the idea of the General Assembly seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of Israel’s security barrier because we thought it was neither appropriate nor helpful to the peace process.
The Australian Government was concerned that the use of the ICJ advisory opinion mechanism would distract Israel and Palestine from the urgent need to resume negotiations to achievable a viable and sustainable two-State solution.
In taking this stance, the Australian Government emphasised that it did not want to see the barrier become a de facto border, and urged the Israeli Government to consider moving the barrier closer to the 1967 line.
This stance reflects the Australian Government’s strong belief that Israel, and all countries, have the right to defend themselves from terrorism.
How can anyone expect the Israeli people to stand by as they see their friends, their spouses, their children blown apart in cafes and on buses?”6
Addressing concerns expressed by officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and others about the danger of Australia becoming “isolated” by refusing to join in ganging up against Israel, and about the need for Australia to be “in the middle” on this issue and to vote in “good company”, Downer retorted:
“This issue isn’t about some nonsense about “good company” and being in the “middle”. It’s about a fine judgment of how best to achieve peace in the Middle East. Peace to me is a lot more important than being in “the middle”.7
He wryly observed that in 2004 when Australia had voted against the ICJ Advisory Opinion concerning Israel’s security barrier:
“Only nine countries voted no and they were “isolated”. Well, among the nine were the US and Canada. They are pretty good company.”8
Prefiguring the comments made by Antonio Guterres, Downer attributed the UN’s animus against Israel, at least in part, to antisemitism. In a media statement condemning antisemitism he observed that Australia under the Coalition “firmly opposed the proliferation of one-sided anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations, just as we have consistently supported resolutions calling for the elimination of all forms of intolerance”.9
Downer was scathing in his criticism of his successor as Foreign Minister, Bob Carr after Carr forced his own leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, to consent to an Australian abstention on the question of recognising a non-existent Palestinian state in 2012, instead of voting ‘No’ on principle, as she had wished:
Foreign Minister Bob Carr argued the resolution didn’t confer statehood on the Palestinian territories. Well, it did. It elevated Palestine to the status of non-member observer state. Then he argued on the ABC that: “To have voted no would have sent a message that Australia does not believe in . . . statehood for Palestinians”.
But hang on! He’d already claimed the vote didn’t confer statehood.
In any case, Australia has been a supporter of the two-state solution since 1948.”10
However, even Alexander Downer was not blindly uncritical of Israel, as is revealed by his comments suggesting Israel should move the security barrier closer to the pre-1967 lines. His disapproval of the General Assembly’s annual ritual of passing resolutions directed against Israel should be seen as part of a wider concern he had about the need for reform at the UN:
“The General Assembly is in dire need of reform and revitalisation. It should be the thriving centre of the multilateral system. Instead it has become an outdated forum of marginal relevance to member states, overgrown with pointless resolutions.”11
He was also firmly of the view that isolating Israel in the UN is both morally unjustified and inimical to achieving peace:
“Israel is becoming increasingly isolated. While the Arabs have vast land areas and 300 million people and Iran 70 million, Israel is only about four times the size of Kangaroo Island. It is surrounded by hostile powers. It has no strategic depth.
Now the world is becoming more hostile to Israel just as it faces the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The more nervous Israel is about its security and especially its neighbours, the less likely it is to do deals with them.
Never underestimate the dangers of isolating people. It’s hardly a formula for peace.”12
Finally whilst, as Alexander Downer noted, the US and Canada are indeed “good company” for Australia, Australia has not always voted with them on these issues. Even in the last four years of Downer’s stewardship as Foreign Minister, and also during Julie Bishop’s tenure, Australia abstained on two key annual resolutions – those concerning Jerusalem and “the Syrian Golan” – whereas the US and Canada voted “No”.
Labor, too, has had one Foreign Minister who could fairly be described as a fearless champion of Israel – Herbert Vere Evatt in the late 1940s, when Jews living in the British Mandate of Palestine were conducting an insurgency to win their political independence and end British rule. At that time, the Australian Liberal party and much of the Australian media was arguably even more pro-British than pro-Australian, and was quite hostile to the Jewish cause and the establishment of Israel.
Evatt championed the cause of the Jewish state at every turn, helping to pass the UN General Assembly’s resolution on 29 November 1947 to partition the British Mandate territory into a Jewish State and an Arab State, and – even more crucially – in having Israel admitted to the UN as a member State on 11 May 1949, when Evatt presided over the General Assembly.
Evatt would have concurred with Downer’s view that the UN General Assembly “should be the thriving centre of the multilateral system” if it acts diligently, impartially and in conformity with just principles and just procedures, and proposes solutions based solely on considerations of justice and fair dealing, and not expediency or power politics.13 He believed that once the General Assembly had thoroughly and impartially investigated, debated and voted on any international matter, as it had on the partition of Mandatory Palestine, the outcome was morally binding on all nations. For this reason he stated: “I regard the establishment of Israel as a great victory for the United Nations”, and accorded to the General Assembly “the primary credit for the establishment of Israel”.14
Yet Evatt, like Downer decades later, was not uniformly supportive of Israel on every issue. When the question of Jerusalem came up in the General Assembly later in 1949, Australia continued to support the internationalisation of the city, a position rejected by Jews and Arabs alike, albeit for diametrically opposite reasons. The Foreign Minister of the then newly-established State of Israel, Abba Eban, recalled:
“Toward the end of the 1949 session, however, the assault on Israel’s status in Jerusalem was launched in full fury. We expected to be challenged by the Arab states and by many in Latin America who were under the influence of the Catholic Church, but we were never able to diagnose the cause for Herbert Evatt’s strange obduracy in this matter…I found it embarrassing to be in conflict with a delegation that had given us such strong support, especially when its foreign minister had presided over the General Assembly in the debate on our admission”.15
“Doc” Evatt and Alexander Downer are regarded by their respective parties, and by many others, as giants of Australian foreign policy. Their approach was marked by taking a long view of what would best serve Australia’s national interests, giving priority to the values which Australians hold most dear over the kind of political horse-trading between nations that is an all-too-familiar part of what transpires at the United Nations.
They each saw Israel as a thriving kindred democracy. For them, supporting Israel’s cause entailed an affirmation of individual freedom, the rule of law and human rights, and an emphatic rejection of dictatorship. In Israeli society they saw a tolerance and compassion which celebrates rather than suppresses difference, and embraces a rugged egalitarianism that has little time for airs and graces.
Such values are, or should be, the benchmarks by which Australian foreign policy is conducted. The successors of Evatt and Downer can be judged by the extent to which they have adhered to them.
Peter Wertheim AM is a former lawyer and is currently the Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.