Beyond bogus: ‘International opinion’

Last week, Israeli Ambas -sador to the United States Michael Oren was heckled relentlessly and interrupted vociferously by members of University of California at Irvine’s Muslim Student Union. Such negation of civility, discourse and decorum, which was noisily and gleefully celebrated by still other members of this group, is often defended by solemn-sounding references to United Nations’ resolutions.

This case was no exception. In a subsequent statement, the Muslim Student Union said it opposed having university departments sponsor a speaker representing a country that “is condemned by more UN Human Rights Council resolutions than all other countries in the world combined” – which is, in fact, the case.

Those who use this type of argument rely on the halo effect of the United Nations, which is held, implicitly or explicitly, to embody “international opinion,” a term that can be invoked with reverential awe to dignify a bad, dishonest argument.

So let’s tell the truth – the U.N. is not a democratic body. It represents governments, not societies, and it consists mainly of unrepresentative governments. The U.N. Human Rights Council cited by the university’s Muslim Student Union is a case in point: Non-democratic African and Asian regimes exercise an unbreakable controlling majority of 26 of its 47 seats.

It is these dictatorships that set the council’s agenda and determine its vote – and thus decide what constitutes “international opinion” as cited by the Muslim Student Union.

Of what has that opinion consisted? That monstrous human rights abuses by the worst dictatorships need not be investigated or acted upon. This affords little surprise, as many of the worst abusers are themselves council members – Angola, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, to name four – and their standard operating procedure is to look out for each other.

Thus, Asian and African autocracies have acted in tandem to minimize scrutiny of nations such as Zimbabwe, a veritable human rights Enron. In its four-year existence, the council’s controlling membership has eliminated investigations into the most serious human rights abuses in Belarus, Congo, Cuba, Liberia and Sudan. In that time, about 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Sudan’s Darfur region alone.

Instead, “international opinion” busies itself with vilifying Israel at the behest of Arab and Muslim tyrannies.

In this, the council reflects the U.N. more widely, as the 22-member League of Arab States and the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference determine the Middle East agenda of the so-called Non-Aligned bloc, the largest one within the U.N. system. Non-Middle Eastern tyrannies receive reciprocal favors for their support of this agenda. Russia shields Iran from sanctions over its illegal nuclear weapons program, while China does the same for Sudan.

But none of this is new. Democracies became a minority within the U.N. system in the late 1950s and stayed that way. The democratic wave in Eastern Europe and South America that followed the Cold War proved ephemeral in some places – Vladimir Putin’s Russia is one stark example among others – and in any case too small to alter this fact.

“International opinion,” in short, is whatever a consensus of tyrannies says it is.

It follows that whatever a majority of U.N. member states declare can, at best, only incidentally reflect what their societies think, if it does at all. And what most people think about other countries or foreign policy in any case may bear little relation to the facts.

Accordingly, even in democracies, most people have to do their own research beyond skimming the daily papers and television news to develop an informed opinion on any subject. For this, most lack time or inclination, if not both, though the Internet has somewhat attenuated the problem. As for inquiring minds in repressive states, where the media is government-controlled, the option to become informed about something simply may not exist.

This state of affairs obliges us to be guided by this golden rule: Disbelieve anyone who appeals to “international opinion” or its imagined embodiment in the consensus of this or that United Nations organ to burnish his argument. As for why democratic governments and societies continue the damaging practice of investing moral authority in “international opinion,” that is a subject for serious study – and correction.

Daniel Mandel, a fellow in history at Melbourne University, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004)