Kofi Annan Honors UN Watch Founder Morris Abram

December 1999

  Press Release


Speech to New York Group Acknowledges Sense of ‘Exclusion’ and Calls For Mutual Understanding, Recognizing Jewish Contribution to World Body


It is a great pleasure to join you this evening, and to have this opportunity to talk with you about the work of the United Nations — and your own key role in that work — as we enter a new century.

First, of course, I would like to add my voice to yours in paying tribute to Ambassador Morris Abram, who richly merits this recognition. I first met Morris in the 1980s, when we were both stationed in Geneva. He was known for the special interest he took in human rights issues. I was working for the High Commissioner for Refugees. Incredibly, there was no High Commissioner for Human Rights at that time. Both of us were concerned with helping some of the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted people, and we had what I would describe as an immediate meeting of minds.

Today, Morris’s many contributions over the years are known to us all. He has become a forceful advocate of freedom, tolerance and civil rights. He has served no fewer than five United States Presidents. And he has embraced, as one of his main causes, the fate of Jews around the world and their hopes of living fruitful lives, free from discrimination and fear.

He has, in short, proved himself a global citizen of the first rank. I say this even as head of an organization which has been on the receiving end of some sharp criticism from UN Watch, Morris’s current passion. Don’t get me wrong. We don’t agree with everything Morris says, but we can take it.

I know that to some of you in this audience, and in the Jewish community at large, it has sometimes seemed as if the United Nations serves all the world’s peoples but one: the Jews.

The exclusion of Israel from the system of regional groupings; the intense focus given to some of Israel’s actions, while other situations sometimes fail to elicit the similar outrage; these and other circumstances have given a regrettable impression of bias and one-sidedness.

As you know, the General Assembly some years ago rescinded its resolution equating Zionism with racism. Even so, deep and painful scars remain — for the United Nations, I should stress, as much as for you. One of my priorities as Secretary-General has been to try to heal these wounds and find our way to mutual understanding and partnership.

Building lives of security and dignity for all requires the full participation of all — of each and every individual and nation. I am glad to say that the Jewish community has been a significant presence at the United Nations from the beginning. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee were in San Francisco when the Organization was founded, and helped to infuse the Charter with concern for justice and human rights. Earlier this year, the American Jewish Committee donated $200,000 to the United Nations refugee agency for the reconstruction of schools in Kosovo, showing a humanitarian impulse that recognizes neither borders nor creed, but only fellow human beings in need.

And just last month, Felice Gaer of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute was elected to the United Nations Committee against Torture, the first United States national to serve on this key body. This is doubly good news. First, Ms. Gaer brings a wealth of experience to the committee. Second, as its only woman, she will help correct the gender imbalance that has characterized the Committee.

So ours is a key relationship. The question is not whether the United Nations and the Jewish community should be closer partners. Rather, the key issue is how we shall get from here to there.

Let me stress that I believe there is much to build on. Despite our troubled history, the American Jewish Committee’s own public opinion polls show that 58 percent of American Jews have a favourable view of the United Nations, while only 20 percent have an unfavourable opinion.

Mr. Ramer, [President of the American Jewish Committee], I am grateful to you for telling the United States Congress this past July that the United Nations is an “indispensable institution”.

And the American Jewish Committee’s six-point plan concerning Israel’s treatment in the United Nations contains much that we in the Secretariat can only applaud: for example, your call for the United States to avoid denigrating the institution, and for the United States to pay its debts and dues in full and on time. You recognize the national interest in meeting international obligations.

But if the United Nations can be increasingly confident of your support, it is only fair that you should be able to feel growing confidence about the United Nations.

One encouraging step came one year ago when, for the first time, the General Assembly included anti-Semitism among the forms of racism it wishes to eliminate.

Discussions are also continuing on the possibility of Israel joining a regional group. I had very much hoped that Member States would have reached agreement on this by now. As I have said before, we must uphold the principle of equality among Member States. I shall keep encouraging all concerned to find a solution.

Above all else, a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement to the Arab- Israeli conflict would improve the situation immeasurably — first and foremost in the region, but also at the United Nations. During my own visit to the region last year, I witnessed the hardship and deprivation caused by decades of conflict. I visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and learned more about the deep yearning of the Jewish people for a haven among the family of nations.

In Lebanon and on the Golan Heights, I heard villagers express hope that their homes and fields would never again become battle zones. In Gaza and in Jordan, I met with Palestinian refugees who for generations had known no life but that in the refugee camps — men, women and especially children trying to maintain their dignity under dismal conditions and restrictions.

Like my predecessors, I have tried to support the process by stressing the security and human rights of all parties. Three months ago, I appointed Terje Rod- Larsen of Norway as my Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. Both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as the United States, welcomed this step and I have no doubt he will bring to this role the same talents, dedication and fair-mindedness he showed in helping to get the Oslo process started in the first place.

I am very encouraged that the parties are as deeply engaged as they are. We must help them guard the fragile accomplishments of the peace process. We must help as they press forward with an ambitious agenda and timetable. And we must guard against actions that might prejudice the outcome of the delicate negotiations. I know we all hope this will be the decisive push towards peace.

Though it may seem otherwise at times, the United Nations is not just a political body, and there is more on its agenda than Middle East issues. And while your influence will be crucial in supporting the peace process, there is also much more that the United Nations and the Jewish community can do together.

We need you to help in the campaign to ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, which can serve as a bulwark against evil. We need you as our allies throughout the United States, from Main Street to the halls of Congress, in the struggle against isolationism and for multilateralism.

The new century is upon us, and the shape of the challenges ahead is clear. Some are as old as civilization itself: war, hunger, intolerance and inequality. Others are newer, such as the AIDS epidemic, climate change and the opportunities and risks associated with globalization. Some threats are conspicuous, such as drug-trafficking and terrorism. Others are more subtle, like corruption and money- laundering.

All these challenges share a crucial aspect: they transcend borders. They demand of us that we think less about what divides us, and more about what holds us together. They demand of us that we continue building an international community: a humane community with rules, with shared values and aspirations and, most of all, with a conscience.

It is unthinkable that your voices would not be part of this quest. Jews know the burden of bigotry. They know the longing for sovereignty. They know the pride and peril of nation-building. They know the push and pull between tradition and the modern; between individual needs and those of the community; between multiculturalism and more narrow visions of society. These are issues and questions that resonate for all people. As we search for answers, your participation can enrich the United Nations.

Friends, Jews around the world have just finished the annual celebration of Hanukkah — the last “festival of lights” in a dark and tumultuous century. Tragically, genocide is very much a word of our time, blighting humanity’s path and casting long shadows over genuine progress in the human condition. Indeed, the United Nations will never forget its origins in the fight against fascism, and that its Charter was drafted as the world was learning the full horror of the Holocaust. This history makes it especially sad that such a gulf arose between us.

If there is cause for optimism, it lies in the fact that there is today unprecedented global awareness of the centrality of human rights in people’s lives – – of the right of every individual to speak his or her mind; to work and worship as he or she pleases; in short, to control his or her own destiny.

Two days ago, on the tenth of December, as Hanukkah was winding to a close, men and women around the world also observed the last human rights day of the century: a day of remembrance of persecutions past, a day of solidarity with the victims of today, and finally a day when we express the fervent hope that in future the power of light can triumph over darkness.

Together, we have an opportunity — and an obligation — to bring more light into the world. Jews have been engaged in just such a mission since the far reaches of antiquity. For the past fifty-four years — certainly not as long, although it has felt that way at times — this has also been the mission of the United Nations. Neither of us has always succeeded. But neither have we stopped trying. Let us join forces and build a better world together. Thank you very much.

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UN Watch