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Australia and the United Nations, 2007

By Adam Frey


“[T]he United Nations’ record on anti-Semitism has at times fallen short of our ideals. The General Assembly resolution of 1975, equating Zionism with racism, was an especially unfortunate decision…”
- Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, June 21, 2004

Although former Secretary-General Annan rightly pointed to the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution as the nadir of the UN’s record on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias, it is – unfortunately – by no means the only example. As AIR has discussed before, the General Assembly routinely promotes and passes blatantly one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions; the UN Human Rights Council – the replacement for the highly politicised and dysfunctional Human Rights Commission – has so far been no better than its predecessor; and there are four distinct bodies within the UN bureaucracy that are devoted solely to advancing the Palestinian narrative of the conflict while demonising Israel.

There even has been backsliding on anti-Israel efforts to equate Zionism with racism. Although the 1975 resolution was officially repealed in 1991, the vitriolic canard again reared its head at the 2001 UN-sponsored Durban conference. As readers may recall, this conference – which was supposed to be about combating racism and xenophobia – degenerated into such anti-Israel, antisemitic, and anti-Western rhetoric that the Israeli and US delegations walked out completely. Australia’s delegation bravely stayed behind to try to clean up the worst excesses of the conference, with some success.

Against this backdrop of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias, it is instructive to review Australia’s UN voting record on these issues during the 62nd Session (2007) of the UN General Assembly. While these resolutions have no legal force, they do represent a major part of the UN’s problem – creating a perception of partisanship which limits any UN role in Middle East peacemaking, encourages Palestinian intransigence by essentially endorsing a Palestinian refusal to compromise for peace, and institutionalises a series of different failures to live up to the principles of the UN’s own Charter.

The record reveals that the Australian government, for the most part, continued to take a principled stand by voting “no” on many of these issues. Moreover, many of these votes occurred in December 2007, after Kevin Rudd and the ALP had already assumed government. These votes reflected no willingness by Australia to return to the tendency to vote reflexively the “European” way, as was explicit policy in the mid-1990s. At the same time, the decision of Australia’s UN delegation to either abstain or even vote “yes” on other resolutions, as well as the fact that Australia’s “no” votes have not proved a catalyst for enough other states to follow suit, demonstrates that there is still work to be done.

“No” to the anti-Israel Bureaucracy

There are four primary examples of the blatantly anti-Israel bias that has been institutionalised at the UN. These are: (1) the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories (“the Special Committee”); (2) the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; (3) the Division for Palestinian Rights of the Secretariat; and (4) the Special Information Program on the Question of Palestine of the Department of Public Information of the Secretariat.

Special Committee

Every year the Special Committee produces a report of its work, which puts forward a number of draft resolutions – five in 2007. The first such resolution related to the work of the Committee, and demanded that Israel cooperate with the Committee while continuing the Committee’s mandate to investigate what it has prejudged as Israeli violations of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. As it did in 2006, the Australian delegation voted against this one-sided resolution, along with the United States, Canada, Israel, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau. With many European countries and others abstaining, however, the resolution on the Special Committee’s work was approved by a vote of 93 in favour, 8 against and 74 abstentions.

Australia’s voting record on the remaining four resolutions was mixed. On a resolution demanding that Israel accept the applicability of the relevant Geneva Convention to the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Australia abstained. (The resolution passed 169-6-3.) Australia then voted against two resolutions, one criticising Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem and demanding that Israel comply with the International Court of Justice’s non-binding 2004 advisory opinion related to the security fence; and another demanding that Israel take certain specific steps in the peace process, such as releasing all tax revenue due to the Palestinian Authority, implement the Rafah Crossing agreement, and stop work on the security fence. (Both resolutions passed, 165-7-5 and 156-7-11, respectively). However, Australia then voted in favour of a resolution calling on Israel to abide by Security Council resolutions related to the Golan Heights. That resolution passed by a vote of 164-1-10, with even the United States abstaining.

Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinians

This Committee was established in 1975. As the only human rights committee in the General Assembly devoted to a single cause, it is emblematic of the institutional bias against Israel at the UN. As it has every year since 2003, Australia again voted against the resolution requesting the Committee to continue its work. Due to heavy abstentions by European and other countries, however, the resolution nevertheless passed by a vote of 109-8-55.

Division for Palestinian Rights

The Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR) is a division within the UN Department of Political Affairs. With a substantial staff and millions of dollars in funding, this division puts Palestinian aspirations on an equal footing with entire continents and all their inhabitants. For example, the Division for Palestinian Rights is organisationally on a par with the division for the “Americas and Europe” and that for “Asia and the Pacific”.

 Recognising this absurdity, Australia began voting against the funding for the DPR beginning in 2004, and the current government continued this principled pattern this year. Due again to large abstentions by the EU states and others, however, this resolution also passed 110-8-54.

Although an abstention can be a protest vote, the failure of European and other countries to follow Australia’s positive example in the votes on the DPR and the two committees are particularly unfortunate given UN voting rules. Specifically, because these are funding resolutions, UN rules require that they pass by a two-thirds “supermajority”. If all the countries that abstained on these three resolutions had instead voted “no”, the resolutions would have failed.

Special Information Program

The Special Information Program is a unit within the supposedly neutral Secretariat devoted specifically to “raising the awareness of the international community concerning the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East.” Predictably, the information it provides is extremely unbalanced and therefore actually contributes to misinformation on the Middle East. The Australian government recognises this incongruity and was one of eight countries to vote against the program.

As Australia’s representative said after the vote, “the Department of Public Information’s program was not a constructive use of resources.” More pointedly, the same representative said that the program and the specific units within the Secretariat “did little to help the cause for peace in the Middle East.”

Other Resolutions

Australia’s voting record on other one-sided GA resolutions was less predictable. For example, Australia voted “no” on a resolution affirming the Palestinians’ “permanent sovereignty” over the natural resources in the West Bank, Gaza and Golan; a resolution criticising the conduct of the Israeli Air Force during the Second Lebanon War; and another entitled “peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine,” which essentially placed complete responsibility for all obstacles to peace on Israel.

Australia then abstained from voting on a resolution seeking to invalidate Israel’s exercising governing authority in Jerusalem; a resolution on the Golan Heights; a resolution that singles out Israel as a risk to nuclear proliferation in the region; and, finally, a resolution on Palestinian rights to self-determination. Explaining the vote on this last resolution, a representative of the Australian delegation noted that although Australia supports a negotiated, two-state solution that addresses both parties concerns, “Australia abstained on this resolution as it contains unbalanced language which will do nothing to assist in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.”

On the other hand, Australia voted in favour of four resolutions related to assistance for and the status of Palestinian refugees. Although seemingly innocuous, such resolutions in fact serve to absolve the Arab states of their responsibility for the plight of the refugees, including their near universal refusal to integrate Palestinians into their countries. These resolutions also, through agencies such as UNRWA, perpetuate the unprecedented and legally unsupported demand for an unlimited “right of return” to Israel. Of course, this demand is utterly antithetical to a true “two state” solution, and a major barrier to real peace.

Council v. Commission

The dysfunction of the Commission on Human Rights – and the absurdity of having the world’s worst human rights offenders (such as Cuba, Libya, and Sudan) sit on the Commission judging others, particularly Israel, while shielding themselves and their friends from scrutiny – finally led to the demise of the Commission in 2006. For those believing in the need for a strong human rights body to hold abusers accountable, there was a moment, albeit brief, of hope.

Unfortunately, the Human Rights Council – the Commission’s successor body –has proven just as bad, if not worse. Although supporters of the Council touted reforms that were supposed to block the presence of human rights abusers on the Council, the membership of the inaugural Council still includes Cuba and Saudi Arabia, among others. Nor has the Council’s aim improved: it continues to single out Israel for specific blame in numerous resolutions and even special sessions, while almost no other countries are ever specifically condemned. For instance, the Sudanese government escapes specific condemnation for the genocide in Darfur.


To its credit, the Australian government predicted that the cosmetic changes of the Council would have no effect, and thus opposed them from the beginning. The Council’s own conduct has validated this opposition. In voting against the Human Rights Council resolution last December, the First Secretary at the Australian Mission to the UN explained the vote with the following:

The new Australian Government is strongly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and wants the Human Rights Council to play a strong, positive role in promoting and protecting human rights around the world… That said, we remain of the view that the Human Rights Council’s institution-package is unbalanced. We were deeply disappointed at the unnecessary inclusion of a separate standing item focusing exclusively on the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”, which contradicts the Council’s founding principles of non-selectivity and objectivity.

Although it may seem odd for a country strongly committed to human rights to vote against a “human rights council”, it is in fact a principled position against an institution that is doing more damage than good, despite its name.

Durban Disasters

As noted at the outset, the 2001 Durban “World Conference Against Racism” degenerated into an outright disaster. One current US representative to the UN, Mark Wallace, recently called it “a disgrace in the international community.”

As per standard procedure, a review conference has been scheduled for 2009. Unfortunately, the sequel promises to contain as many bad elements as the original. Libya holds the chair of the planning committee, Cuba is the vice-chair, and Iran is a member of the executive committee. The irony of Iran helping to plan a conference ostensibly aimed at combating racism should not be lost on UN member states. Fortunately, it does not seem to have gone unnoticed by Australia, which continued its principled stance at the UN by voting at the end of the year against a resolution authorising funding for the conference.

As one could guess, the resolution passed anyway, further evidence that Australia, and the too-small number of like-minded countries willing to take a principled stand designed to help the UN live up to its own self-proclaimed standards and aims, still have a long way to go.

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