Hillel Neuer: Warrior of Israel in Geneva

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Hillel Neuer is used to receiving a cold hand at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“When I enter the UN room, if the looks kill, I would be killed by a thousand blows,” he said.

Not surprising, because as executive director of the non-governmental organization UN Watch, Neuer points out the myriad ways the UN fails to abide by the principles in its own charter. He regularly calls on countries and their leaders about human rights abuses, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Israel prejudice.

More recently, UN Watch has focused on urging nations to withdraw from the Durban IV conference marking the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action. It has also exposed more than 100 educators from the UN Relief and Works Agency who spread hatred against Jews and promote terrorism against Israelis, leading to an investigation.

In June, the organization convened the XIII Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy online. Neuer has chaired this annual event (held in person before COVID) that involves a coalition of 25 human rights groups and provides a platform for pro-democracy dissidents to present their stories and advocate for change.

Neuer, UN Watch executive director since 2004, has worked tirelessly to show the UN a mirror. He wants members to see a funny and distorted mirror, as repressive regimes like Russia and China are elected members of the HRC and Israel is a wildly disproportionate scapegoat and condemned.

It’s hard work, but someone has to do it and persevere.

“You sit there and you see that these terrible things keep happening. That can be a bit daunting, but that’s the nature of the world we’re in. It is very difficult to change these things, but we know that we are leading the fight, ”said Neuer.

“The odds are against us. It’s weird that we ever thought that we could change things tomorrow [but] We have to be the leading voice for human rights, democracy and the fight against anti-Israel fanaticism so that we set the bar for countries to follow, ”he said.

UN Watch was founded in 1993 by civil rights activist Morris B. Abram, former Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations in Geneva. It is an accredited NGO with special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and as an NGO associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information (DPI). Inform both of you periodically.

    Neuer (center) with human rights activists in Geneva (credit: UN Watch) Neuer (center) with human rights activists in Geneva (credit: UN Watch)

Before assuming the professional leadership of UN Watch, Neuer practiced civil rights and commercial litigation for several years at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York.

“To some extent, the law firm was a detour,” Neuer said.

Neuer obtained a law degree in comparative constitutional law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was secretary to Justice Itzhak Zamir on the Supreme Court of Israel. However, the seed of human rights work was planted earlier when Neuer studied with activist and former Canadian justice minister, Professor Irwin Cotler, at McGill University School of Law.

“In law school, I took all the courses and seminars that I could with [Cotler] and became his research assistant. I have been close to him for many years. It was a great influence. He is an extraordinary person … He has fought for the rights of the Jewish people to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Israel intolerance, and for universal human rights: it is a fight, ”Neuer said.

The UN Watch director was captivated by Cotler’s passion for human rights before law school, when he attended rallies to liberate Soviet Jews in his hometown of Montreal and listened to Cotler speak from the stage.

“The movement spoke on behalf of universal values ​​as much as it did on behalf of Jewish values. The Jewish values ​​they taught me had to do with human dignity and respect for all. This largely translates into the work we do at UN Watch, which fights for the human dignity of all, regardless of race, religion or background, ”Neuer said.

Raised in a modern Orthodox Zionist home in Montreal’s multi-ethnic Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood, Neuer has been based in Geneva for the past 17 years. His work also takes him to Israel quite regularly.

However, it is his “Canadian character” that Neuer attributes to his ability to remain calm when things are not going well at the HRC.

“I am patient. At the UN you are often interrupted … I wait for my chance to say something. When you have the opportunity to say something at the UN, that’s a lot. It may only be 90 seconds, but you want to get your 90 seconds. Patience is a virtue, ”he said.

While Neuer may only be given a minute and a half to present his case, he makes sure that people beyond the council chamber hear what he has to say. Thanks to social media, the videos of his speeches reach the eyes and ears of millions of followers and supporters around the world.

The advent of social media has been a blessing for UN Watch. Neuer himself now has 129,000 followers on Twitter. It is not an option for him not to be active on the platform.

“Twitter is the main political battlefield … I’m on Twitter, and so is the spokesperson for the Chinese regime, and so is a CNN host. Anyone who has something to say, be it a politician or a journalist or some other public figure who is in the battle of words and ideas is on Twitter, that’s why we are there and calling people, “he explained.

Neuer often uses sarcasm and humor in his tweets. He finds it to be a good way to communicate the absurdity of what is happening at the UN, such as the election of countries like Cuba, Pakistan and Libya to the HRC.

“Whether it’s a tweet or a 90-second speech at the UN. It’s about stating the facts, having some kind of argument and doing it in a forceful way, “he said.

UN Watch has many detractors and adversaries, including dictators and UN officials, who do not like to be held accountable for implementing resolutions that go against the founding principles of the organization.

“There are also many radical leftists within the NGO sector who despise me, because we dare to defend equal rights in Israel. That is not a popular thing; It will earn you a lot of hatred at the UN, ”Neuer said.

According to Neuer, it all comes down to UN Watch not getting on the anti-Western bandwagon popular with some other prominent human rights organizations. (Among them he cites Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International).

“I do not believe that the United States or the West is blameless … But we do not believe that the West is the source of the world’s ills. These other NGOs are a new version of anti-colonialism and bordering communist ideas about western exploitation of the rest of the world … We do not subscribe to this. We believe that there is a difference between a free democracy and a dictatorship. Switzerland, despite all its problems, is not the same as Pakistan or Venezuela, ”Neuer said.

When it comes to Israel, UN Watch realistically recognizes that there is an automatic majority against the Jewish state for any vote at the UN. If one adds the condemnatory resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly, the HRC and the Commission on the Status of Women since 2015, there have been a total of 211 against Israel. By contrast, there have been only 16 against Iran and zero against Saudi Arabia.

“We recognize that we are in a context where the numbers are completely hostile to Israel … The immediate goal is not to win the vote, but if you can get a moral majority – Australia, UK, Holland, Italy – to vote ‘no’ in instead of ‘yes’, or abstain, that is noticed by all parties ”, said Neuer.

It’s a long job, but Neuer is confident that UN Watch’s diplomacy and lobbying are paying off and having an effect on the decisions that are made.

Neuer emphasized the importance of UN Watch’s educational efforts, especially in reaching a younger audience that does not know the history of the Middle East and may assume that the demonization of Israel is justified. While HRC resolutions are not binding, they can cause serious harm.

“These resolutions are translated into all languages ​​and distributed throughout the world, affecting the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people. They are found on the shelves of foreign ministries and universities, and are used by journalists. So these resolutions are important, ”Neuer warned.

Resolutions can also be sent for investigation by other UN bodies, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“Now Israeli officers and soldiers don’t know if they will be arrested if they get off the plane in London or elsewhere,” Neuer said.

Israel’s UN Watch defense against undue bias, and Neuer’s own related frankness in the media, may prevent possible collaborations with other advocates of universal human rights. But Neuer is unapologetic.

“Everyone will see things in their own way and based on their own perspective, environment and pressures. Some may feel uncomfortable with us. But the reality is that we are who we are, ”Neuer said.

Where does Neuer see himself in a decade? Still in command of UN Watch, “fighting the good fight.”

If the workaholic can find the time, he would like to write a book on how the human rights movement “got off track.”

“It started with moral clarity fighting Hitler, with people like Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin and has ended with people like [Human Rights Watch executive director] Ken Roth, who attacks Israel like a war criminal every day, and basically compares Israel to the Nazis, ”Neuer said.

“It bothers me how the human rights movement was subverted and skewed so much, and I want to understand how that happened,” he said.


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