Hillel Neuer, the Human Rights Activist
In recent years the Canadian lawyer who heads UN Watch has expanded the audience of the Geneva-based NGO and consolidated its reputation
23 June 2014
Tribune de Genève
By Alain Jourdan
At the head of UN Watch for the past 10 years, the Canadian Hillel Neuer is a human rights activist who inspires fear and dread. His non-governmental organization excels in the art of applying pressure where it hurts the most. When realpolitik causes governments not to dwell on human rights violations in China, for example, UN Watch goes on the offensive.
Hillel Neuer could have continued his brilliant career as an attorney, which he began in New York at a large firm, to make a name for himself and a fortune. Yet even then, he chose instead to defend the widow and the orphan, working pro bono for the most unfortunate. And he even managed to embarrass the chief medical officer of the New York state prison system, who had placed a prisoner in solitary confinement under false medical pretenses.
The young lawyer has a role model. In Canada, he was the student and protégé of a renowned and respected human rights activist, Professor Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and, above all, Nelson Mandela’s former counsel. Numerous dissidents from around the world request his legal assistance.
“One time during law school, I recall participating in one of Professor Cotler’s seminars, together with 15 other students. We were asked: What would you do if you became the director of a non-governmental organization?” recalls Hillel Neuer. The young student was unaware that his professor had infected him with the human rights virus.
“To appear before the Human Rights Council is not like appearing before a court. One may nicely marshal the most compelling facts, evidence and arguments, and then find it had little effect on the verdict. At first, I was a bit confused,” confided the UN Watch director.
Even as he deplores the limitations of a system that is supposed to encourage countries to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Hillel Neuer refuses to consider it a losing battle. “We still have the right to speak, and that is very important,” he explains.
An Open Forum
Since becoming the head of UN Watch, the lawyer has launched an annual human rights summit in Geneva which offers an open forum for dissidents from around the world. China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea are some of the privileged targets of the NGO.
“A European diplomat once laughed in my face when I asked him why no one tries to submit a resolution on China. Yet I refuse to give up,” says Hillel Neuer. “China represents one fifth of humanity and its inhabitants are deprived of freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. They remove the organs of Falun Gong practitioners who are arbitrarily arrested and tortured,” he says.
UN Watch and its director also have their critics. On many occasions the NGO has been reproached for its proximity to Israel and the World Jewish Congress, notably when it attacked Jean Ziegler. The Geneva sociologist’s radical positions with regard to Israel and his admiration for Chavez and Castro have cemented a solid and enduring enmity.
When asked about the question of Israel, Hillel Neuer doesn’t dodge the debate. “Israel can be criticized like any other country. The problem is the relentless manner in which it is targeted at the UN. Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon themselves have denounced it. But as for who must defend Israel, that is the work of its ambassadors, not ours,” the director of UN Watch responds.
Today, the press releases and campaigns orchestrated in Geneva by Hillel Neuer cross borders thanks to the internet and social networks. Over the years, UN Watch’s criticism of the UN system has become less radical. Its activity has become focused on providing support to dissidents and generating media exposure of the abuses and crimes committed by the dictatorships and populist regimes.
Hillel Neuer, l’activiste des droits de l’homme
En quelques années, l’avocat canadien qui dirige UN Watch a élargi l’audience de cette ONG basée à Genève et consolidé sa réputation
A la tête d’UN Watch depuis dix ans, le Canadien Hillel Neuer est un activiste des droits de l’homme craint et redouté. Son ONG excelle dans l’art d’appuyer là où ça fait mal. Quand la realpolitik commande, par exemple, aux Etats de ne pas s’éterniser sur les violations des droits de l’homme en Chine, UN Watch passe à l’offensive.
Hillel Neuer aurait pu continuer sa brillante carrière d’avocat entamée à New York dans un grand cabinet pour se faire un nom et une fortune. Mais déjà à l’époque, il préfère prendre la défense de la veuve et de l’orphelin. Il assure gratuitement la défense des plus pauvres et parvient même à mettre en difficulté le médecin-chef de la prison de New York qui a fait mettre un prisonnier à l’isolement sous de fausses raisons médicales.
Le jeune avocat a un modèle. Au Canada, il a été l’élève et le protégé d’un militant des droits de l’homme connu est respecté, le professeur Irwin Cotler, ex-ministre de la Justice et surtout ancien avocat de Nelson Mandela. De nombreux dissidents à travers le monde ont fait appel à ses services. «Un jour, j’ai participé avec quinze autres personnes à un séminaire qu’il organisait. La question était: que feriez-vous si vous étiez directeur d’une ONG?» se souvient Hillel Neuer. Le jeune étudiant ignorait que son professeur venait de lui inoculer le virus des droits de l’homme.