Hillel Neuer ‘not surprised’ by Biden’s return to UNHRC, but sees chance to hold abusers to account

February 18, 2021 by  
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Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch—a Swiss-based NGO that monitors the actions of the United Nations—has drawn praise for his fearless rebukes of dictatorial regimes who single out Israel criticisms, while ignoring human-rights violations elsewhere.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch. Credit: Courtesy

His widely viewed 2017 speech “Algeria, Where Are Your Jews?” illustrates the hypocrisy of Arab nations that criticize Israel, but ignore their own terrible human-rights records. The speech has been viewed more than 5 million times.

Neuer will join Daniel Pomerantz, CEO of Honest Reporting, and its managing editor, Charles Bybelezer, in a Zoom webinar titled “Anti-Semitism: From Media to the U.N.’s Halls of Power,” on Feb. 21 at noon Eastern Standard Time. A question-and-answer session will follow the address.

In a phone interview from Israel, Neuer, who is Jewish and originally from Montreal, spoke to JNS about such subjects as antisemitism and the coronavirus, the U.S. decision to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council and the treatment of the Uyghurs in China.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Your now-famous speech, was that made off the cuff, or did you write that beforehand?

A: The thought occurred to me the night before. I knew there was a report coming out accusing Israel of apartheid. I jotted some notes the morning of but as you can see, a lot was as it came to me at the moment.

Q: Did you recognize it as powerful?

A: When it was over, it was clear from the silence there had been a certain moment. The racist regimes that have the gall to accuse Israel of these crimes had been exposed. A day or two later, it got millions of views.

Q: Were there efforts to kick you out?

A: There is constant pressure to shut us down. As you see in my speeches, they often interrupt me. The dictatorships abuse procedure. One thing is they’re allowed to make a reply when I finish. They can respond. That’s fine. But they want to shut us down in the room to show their bosses they interrupted us, so they make up (false) grounds. They say what I’m saying is not relevant to the agenda item. When I’m speaking, it’s always relevant to the agenda item. Or they say my language was inappropriate when their language is the one that’s inappropriate. Sometimes, the chairperson is strong and resists them, but other times, they are afraid. Why should they choose an NGO activist over a country that could punish their country? Sometimes, bureaucrats who are not friendly whisper in the ear of the chair.

Q: Have you or UN Watch gotten threats?

A: I’m not going to go into security issues.

Q: Israel gets criticized all the time while Russia, China and Saudi Arabia almost never do. They even spend time on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Did you think with reports of lies about COVID-19 to the World Health Organization or with the suspicious murder by the Saudis of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, these points would be raised against these two countries?

A: Of course. Countries like Russia, which poisons dissidents; China against its Muslim population; Saudi Arabia chopped up a guy it didn’t like. There’s never been a resolution of the Human Rights Council against any of these countries. There’s never been an emergency session or a commission of inquiry. It’s an upside-down world. Saudi Arabia did not get elected this time, maybe because of Khashoggi, but the country was a member for many years. China and Russia easily won. Other members include Libya, Venezuela and Pakistan. Sixty percent of the countries on the U.N. Human Rights Council fail to meet the basic standards of democracy.

Q: Were you surprised at President Joe Biden’s decision to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council and what would you like to see as America’s role in it?

A: Zero surprise. He said he was going to do it. We are not opposed to U.S. leadership at the United Nations. UN Watch recognizes that these bodies are not going away. In a vacuum, it will be filled by the likes of China, Russia, Pakistan, Cuba and others. We support principled leadership. We look forward to working with the U.S. delegation; we’ve always had a special relationship with them. The question is what their instructions will be. If they go and praise the council’s record and look the other way on bad actions, that will be unhelpful. But if they will fight to hold abusers to account, if they call out anti-Israel biases, that will be different.

Q: Why is it that Muslim member countries of the council are silent regarding China’s horrific treatment of the Uyghurs?

A: It goes to show that Muslim countries may have specific targets and a political agenda. A million Muslims are said to have been herded into camps in China. Their religion and culture are being erased. It’s being trampled. Pakistan is being silent and sometimes even sending Uighurs back into China. They get enormous financial benefits from China and have military ties. Not only have they been silent. It’s much worse. Countries like Iran, Syria and others signed on to praise China on their actions with the Uyghurs. It’s a cynical game.

Q: Do you ever get insults?

A: Certainly! I get a lot of insults hurled at me, and I take them as a badge of honor when they’re coming from evil dictators or U.N. officials like Richard Falk, who was the U.N. expert on Palestine from 2008 to 2014. He called for shutting us down. He called us “an evil ultra-Zionist group.” He’s someone who famously promoted the 9/11 conspiracy theory.

Q: Do they curse at you?

A: I’m sticking with things they say publicly.

Q: There’s talk that U.S. President Joe Biden will return to the Iran nuclear deal? Is this a good idea or not?

A: I think a lot of caution is needed before reducing any of the leverage. We know that Iran lies about its nuclear program. Iran has vast reserves of oil. They don’t need nuclear energy. There is certain leverage that exists today, and it’s important the United States not squander that leverage.

Q: Similar to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jews have been blamed for the global coronavirus pandemic. Should we be concerned with bizarre and fringe conspiracy theories, or pay no attention? 

A: We’re worried about people who say “Jews” or “Israel.” The libel that Israel is distributing its vaccine according to races is being promoted by U.N. experts and by Human Rights Watch. It’s a lie and the modern-day blood libel. The vaccine is being distributed according to who belongs to the Israeli health system. You can be a Palestinian Arab or Israeli Arab and get it if you are a part of the Israeli health system. You can be a Jewish tourist and not be eligible to get it. It’s an attempt to manipulate the good news that Israel is No. 1 in the world on vaccines and turn it into an act of racism. I’m concerned about that, as well as people who blame the Jews. It’s the same medieval tropes that is modern blood libel and scapegoating we saw in the Middle Ages.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing and harshest issue?

A: In terms of human-rights violations, the Uyghur Muslims seem to be one of the worst situations of the world in terms of the number of people affected and the degree of abuse. There are photos of people being rounded up at train stations. It’s certainly not a genocide like the Holocaust. But legally, it’s like a genocide in terms of attempting to erase a religion and culture of a people. There is also sterilization of women promoted. It seems like countries that have trade with China like France and Germany are hesitant to bring it up in a substantial way. We’ve been active on it for 10 years.


One Response to “Hillel Neuer ‘not surprised’ by Biden’s return to UNHRC, but sees chance to hold abusers to account”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    Keep up the good work, Hillel Neuer. You have the respect and admiration of Jews around the world and you are much needed. In a better world you would command the respect and admiration of non-Jews around the world too.

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