by Fjodor Chkalov, Rotterdam
A few weeks ago the Dutch Jewish Student organization IJAR gave me the opportunity to participate in the 9th Ambassadors to the UN Seminar, which was organized the past week by the European Union of Jewish Students in Geneva, Switzerland. Together with about 20 other Jewish students from all over Europe I attended workshops on international humanitarian law and the role of international institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. High profile meetings with representatives from several countries gave us great insight into their work in the international arena and the process of international policy making.
A brief glimpse into my experiences of this past week…
I arrive in Geneva on early Sunday morning. When I meet up with the rest of the participants at the hotel, I’m immediately amazed by the amount of languages that everybody speaks. Besides English, I hear French, German and Russian. Little chance that we will get lost in translation in the next days, that’s for sure.
The seminar kicks off in the afternoon at JCC (Jewish Community Center) in Geneva. Leon Saltiel from UN Watch, an NGO that monitors the UN by its own principles in the UN Charter, gives us an introduction to his advocacy work and some useful information for our meetings with diplomats the following days. Afterwards we meet up with a group of Israeli students for a lecture by Ido Rosenzweig from ALMA, an association who’s prime objective is promoting knowledge of international humanitarian law. I myself am a law student, so I already had certain knowledge about it, but it’s good to refresh my memory. Ido grabs everyone’s interest with his lecture because of his realistic examples in connection to Israel.
We stay at JCC for dinner and get acquainted with each other. Our EUJS guides announce that Anna, one of our group members, is chosen to give a 2 minute speech that she has written, during the infamous item 7 of the Human Rights Council session that we will be attending. I will elaborate more on item 7 later in this report.
We had a lot of information to process on this first day and because of traveling, most people are exhausted, including myself. We decide to go back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
The next day we barely recognize each other at the breakfast table. Jeans and t-shirts are exchanged for business attire. Not surprising, since we are heading to the UN today. We take the bus and arrive at the premises of the UN Human Rights Council 20 minutes later. After the registration process and necessary security checks we can finally get in. It’s a beautiful complex with a lot of green and between the different buildings you have a great view of Lake Geneva and the mountains.
Our first meeting is with Bob Last, a senior human rights advisor of the UK mission to the UN. He tells us about his work with the UK mission and the different policy making processes within the UN. His main area of expertise is Asia and we get to discuss some points that he focuses on, such as rights of the child, religion, contemporary slavery and the war in Syria among others. At the end of the meeting Bob Last is truly surprised that we haven’t even talked to him about Israel. We’ll have enough time to do that when we meet Omer Caspi though, after lunch.
Omer Caspi is the deputy chief of the Israeli mission to the Human Rights Council. During the meeting we talk about item 7; on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories. Israel is the only state in the world that is singled out by the UN and has an item dedicated to. It is difficult to argue against the fact that there is a bias against Israel in the UN. Since 2006 half of all resolutions by the Human Rights Council were dedicated to condemning Israel. A couple of years ago this was the reason for Israel to retreat their delegation. Omer Caspi explains that because of the admission of Israel to a regional group of Western European countries (WEOG) and European and other Western countries deciding not to speak during item 7 anymore, Israel returned to the Human Rights Council. We get the opportunity to ask some questions about the position of Israel in the UN and his work in that context, which for us, Jewish students, is an important topic of course.
After these two meetings me and some others from the group decide to join a side event organized by Badil, a NGO that focuses on promoting and defending the rights of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. The event is already halfway when we enter the room. There are several speakers who discuss the blockade of Gaza and share their views on it. They argue that Israel isn’t doing enough to give the people in the Gaza strip a way to making a living. Although I don’t personally agree with many things that are said during this event, I’m actually surprised about the overall vibe and tone of the speakers. I don’t really get the feeling that I am at some Israel bashing event (which will be different during item 7 the next day).
Afterwards, in the same room, there is a session about a new resolution on cooperation and assistance to Ukraine in the fields of human rights, initiated by Ukraine. During this draft session representatives of states can comment on the points mentioned in the draft resolution and suggest alterations before voting on the resolution. Unsurprisingly, it’s mainly Russia who has something to say on each point. At the end of the session, the Russian representative asks the presiding Ukrainian representative how the next draft will probably look like. He answers: “Same as the first draft”. I try to suppress a laugh, just like some other people who are present in the room. It is interesting to actually see how a new resolution comes into being and is being discussed. It was a long and interesting day at the UN and we head to the JCC to have dinner.
On our third day in Geneva we get up early and once again make our way to the UN complex. Our day starts with a presentation at the international Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), by David Maizlish, an attorney and a division coordinator at the ICRC. He tells us about how the Red Cross operates and gives us examples of his own experiences in countries like Mali and Sudan. Unfortunately our schedule doesn’t allow us to stay longer and see the Red Cross museum. We really have to get going to the Human Rights Council, which is just across the road.
It’s a big day, because item 7 is on the agenda. As mentioned before and as expected, it proves to be a very one sided session during which countries like Syria, Egypt and Libya accuse Israel of the gravest human rights violations. The mother of Naftali Frankel, one of the kidnapped Israeli boys, holds a powerful speech on behalf of UN Watch. “Doesn’t every child has the right to come home safely from school?” she asks the president of the council. Afterwards Anna from our delegation speaks in front of the council on behalf of EUJS. These two speeches seem to be a drop in the ocean, but it’s important to let these voices be heard, especially during item 7, which has almost become circus-like.
After lunch we have a couple more meetings, with the EU representative to the Human Rights Council and with Tom Gal, from the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, another NGO that tries to enhance human rights anywhere in the world. Despite being almost 9 months pregnant, Tom takes the time to answer all our questions about the UN and more specifically international humanitarian law.
After our program at the UN, some of our group go to a special prayer service at a local synagogue for the three kidnapped Israeli boys. Many people have come to show their support and the synagogue is completely filled, with about 250 people. The mother of Naftali Frankel, who held a speech earlier that day at the Human Rights Council speaks for a bit, thanking everyone for all the support that she and the other two mothers have been receiving since the kidnapping.
On Wednesday we have a workshop day. Ido and his colleagues from ALMA have prepared three simulations in which we have to deal with international humanitarian law issues and face the difficulties of policy making. We are split in three groups and engage in interesting, and at times heated, discussions. We conclude the workshop with a presentation on each of the three simulations and how every group has solved the issues that they were faced with.
Our last meeting in Geneva is with two representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a relatively new UN agency that promotes and protects human rights which are guaranteed under international law and agreements. After four days of meetings and workshops many of us are a bit saturated, but there are still quite a lot of questions for the two representatives, which don’t remain unanswered.
The next day we have a closing session together and share our thoughts and ideas about everything we’ve seen and heard the past few days. It proved to be a great seminar with an incredible group of people. Every participant had a very valuable input during these days. The discussions we’ve had, with the group and individually, proved to be great food for thought. This was an unforgettable experience and I think that it will inspire many of us who participated in it.