Hillel Neuer was fascinated by law and politics from a young age.
Mr. Neuer, now in his early 50s, grew up in Montreal, where his father was a lawyer working for legal aid — a public agency that represented people who were not able to afford a lawyer. “My father was doing work that was helping people who were less fortunate, so that might have been an inspiration,” Mr. Neuer said. He also remembers creating skits with a neighbor when he was about 10 years old about such topics as the Kennedy assassination or the separatist movement then active in Quebec. He remembers forcing his parents, as well as his neighbors’ parents, to watch the performances on Shabbat afternoons. He remembers being fascinated watching speeches by Canada’s prime minister and members of its parliament.
And he recalls being fascinated by Israel — by the dramatic story of the Jewish people going from the destruction of the Holocaust to the creation of the state of Israel. “I visited Israel as a teenager and became very excited and passionate about the Jewish story as expressed in the revival of Israel,” he said.
Mr. Neuer also was influenced by Irwin Cotler, whom he described as “one of the great human rights lawyers of our time.” He remembers marching in the streets of Montreal next to the Soviet consulate and chanting slogans like “one, two, three, four, open up the iron door; five, six, seven eight, let our people emigrate” and watching Mr. Cotler standing on a makeshift stage, speaking into a bullhorn. One of the refusniks they were marching for was Anatoly Sharansky, who was freed, made aliyah, and is known now as Natan Sharansky.
Mr. Cotler is a former Canadian minister of justice and attorney general. Mr. Neuer later studied with him as a law student at McGill University; Mr. Cotler became his mentor, and then his friend.
After law school, Mr. Neuer worked at Paul Weiss, a law firm in Manhattan. A colleague and friend at the firm, Eric Block, had completed a one-year fellowship at a small Geneva-based human rights organization called United Nations Watch before starting at Paul Weiss, so Mr. Neuer heard about the organization. United Nations Watch was created by civil rights leader Morris Abram, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva from 1989 to 1993. After he retired, he created United Nations Watch, an organization whose mission is to pay attention to the U.N.’s actions on both general and specifically Jewish issues. Mr. Abram remained involved in United Nations Watch until his death in 2000.
Around 2003, the organization’s office manager wrote to Mr. Block that the director at the time had announced plans to leave and that the small staff was concerned about the organization’s future. Mr. Block forwarded the message to Mr. Neuer and suggested that the now-open position would be perfect for him.
“I looked at the range of things the organization did involving human rights issues, international law, politics, Israel — and it really seemed like the perfect fit for me,” Mr. Neuer said. “It was the kinds of things I was interested in doing, but Geneva seemed very distant and obscure. I’ve lived in Montreal, I’ve lived in Israel, I’ve lived in New York, but I didn’t really know anything about living in Europe.
“To make a long story short, I took a chance.”
Mr. Neuer took over the helm of the organization in 2004. “It wasn’t obvious to move to Geneva,” he said. “Living in Europe took some adjustment, but the work has been extremely fulfilling.”
The organization is based in Geneva because the United Nations’ human rights system is based there as well, Mr. Neuer said; that includes the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, its Office of the High Commissioner, and other human rights committees. There is another advantage to being in Geneva — at the U.N. headquarters there, representatives of such groups as Human Rights Watch can testify at meetings. Such testimony is allowed only in very limited circumstances at the U.N. in New York, where only ambassadors are allowed to speak most of the time. The anomaly that allows such non-ambassadorial speech was grandfathered in after Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of the Human Rights Commission, suggested that the peace groups that helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be permitted to speak.
Mr. Neuer will talk about the organization’s work — the battle for Israel and human rights at the United Nations — at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck on March 12. (See box.)
U.N. Watch has a two-part mission, Mr. Neuer said. The first is to monitor the U.N. to see that it lives up to its universal principles, which include protecting international peace and security and promoting human rights.
So U.N. Watch is very active on a range of human rights issues around the world, focusing on the world’s worst dictatorships. “Human rights need to be protected around the world, whether it’s in a dictatorship or a democracy like the United States, Canada, or where I live, Switzerland,” Mr. Neuer said. “But we’re a small organization, we’re about 10 people, and we have limited time and resources, and we believe the most rational and urgent use of our time is for victims who have no recourse.
“In the United States, you have hundreds or thousands of different associations that are protecting different minorities. You have recourse to the courts, you have fair and free elections — it’s a rough-and-tumble debate, but you can make your voice heard. It’s not perfect, but you have all kinds of checks and balances.
“In dictatorships, they have none of those things, and so that’s where our focus is — on countries like China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe.
“Every year, we bring some of the most prominent victims of those regimes, people who sat in prison for several years, political prisoners who were in solitary confinement, or their family members, to the United Nations to testify at large conferences in front of diplomats, journalists, and activists,” he continued. “We give a voice to the voiceless.”
These countries ruled by dictators often hold important positions at the U.N., so U.N. Watch speaks out. “For example, China sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council — that’s a 47-nation body, the world’s highest human rights body — which is absurd, because China systematically abuses freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and it has put over a million Uyghurs into camps,” Mr. Neuer said. “The notion that that a gross human rights violator would be sitting as a judge and a guardian of human rights is absurd.
“U.N. Watch is the leading group at the United Nations speaking out against these types of situations,” he continued. “Usually the numbers are against us, but we have had some victories. For example, we led the campaign to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council in April of 2022, in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, and we led the campaign to expel Iran from the United Nations Women’s Rights Commission.
“In April 2021, the United Nations elected Iran, the regime that’s beating, blinding, jailing, torturing, and raping innocent women because they called out for freedom,” to the U.N.’s Women’s Rights Commission, he said. “We spearheaded the campaign, and thankfully the United States took it up, and Iran was expelled from the commission.”
The second prong of the organization’s mission is to fight anti-Israel bias at the United Nations.
“At United Nations Human Rights Council sessions, the council spends one day focusing on human rights situations around the world and another day focused only on Israel,” Mr. Neuer said. “No other country in the world has its own agenda item — not Syria, not North Korea, not Russia or Ukraine. Only Israel and Palestine have a special agenda item the whole world focuses on, a special, what we call ‘Hate Israel Day.’ And that’s systemic at the United Nations.
The United Nations has issued more resolutions condemning only Israel than it has issued condemning the entire rest of the world, Mr. Neuer said. That “is reaching the level of demonization, of delegitimization, and that’s why we speak out.
“There’s nothing wrong with criticizing any country, including Israel,” Mr. Neuer continued. “Actually, Israel is a healthy democracy, because it does have protests. We see what’s happening in Israel today — proposed judicial reforms are very controversial and mass protests are taking place. There was an election last year that resulted in a primarily left-of-center coalition that included some right-of-center parties as well as some Arab parties. The recent election resulted in a right-of-center government. That’s healthy criticism to have.
“But what happens at the United Nations is not constructive criticism at all — it’s really just meant to demonize Israel. The United Nations does not seem to care about Palestinians who are being discriminated against in Lebanon or other countries.
“It’s very clear that the attention is only a way to attack Israel.”
U.N. Watch’s activities fall into three broad categories: diplomacy, educating public opinion, and holding United Nations officials accountable. The organization uses diplomacy “to encourage friendly governments to do the right thing,” Mr. Neuer said. “And we have some successes. For example, Britain changed its policy a few years ago and decided that they would vote against all anti-Israel resolutions that were brought under the infamous agenda item seven — that’s the agenda that singles out Israel at the Human Rights Council — and they quoted from UN Watch materials when explaining why they were changing their voting pattern.”
Other examples include the campaigns the organization spearheaded to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council and Iran from the Women’s Rights Commission.
The organization educates public opinion by being very active on the internet and social media and in the regular media. “We’re quoted about 600 times a year exposing United Nations abuses and prejudices and pointing to where victims need to be helped,” Mr. Neuer said. “Videos of our testimony at the United Nations have garnered millions of views.”
U.N. Watch holds officials accountable. Mr. Neuer described a recent example that involved a former professor at Princeton, Richard Falk, who was appointed as a United Nations expert on Palestine and accused Israel of genocide and apartheid. U.N. Watch exposed the fact that this appointee was also spreading 9/11 conspiracy theories that the United States planned the attacks on the World Trade Center, and ultimately the U.N. Secretary General condemned him.
Mr. Neuer stressed that the battles against human rights abuses and against anti-Israel bias really are the same battle. “What we’re saying is we’re a voice of reason at the U.N. Here’s where you’re doing terrible things — you’re demonizing Israel, you’re encouraging antisemitism, you’re legitimizing Hamas — and that’s coming at the expense of what you’re not doing for the victims of Iran, for the victims in China and Russia and Ukraine and Cuba. So for us, it’s a holistic approach.
“One could make the argument that we expect more from a democracy, but I think, for me, it’s sort of a triage,” he continued. “The United Nations has limited time, so am I going to adopt a resolution on problems in Canada — there are problems in Canada — or am I going to talk about China, where there are 1.4 billion people who have no human rights at all and nobody to help them?
“When I was a lawyer in New York City, I worked at a firm that did a lot of pro bono work, and my friends are lawyers for refugees. Pick your issue and there is someone talking about it in a court or in Congress. In China, you’ll have no one to do that for you.
“So the U.N., in my opinion, should be looking for where they can be most effective. I don’t have a problem with the U.N. criticizing democracies, but I think that if you have a limited amount of hours in a session, it’s immoral to devote that time to talking about an issue where the impact you’re going to have is nominal because the issue is already being raised by so many different relevant people — by politicians, courts, NGOs.
“There is a related issue that is very important to note — the presence of a strange toxic alliance. At the United Nations, you have a large majority of anti-Western countries that band together, and when it comes time to appoint experts, see to it that that the people appointed are professors in the United States or Europe with a main focus of attacking the West. The academics being appointed are often anti-capitalist, anti-globalist, anti-imperialist, and their main focus is on the sins of the West.
“So you get this toxic alliance between radical left groups focused on attacking the West and dictatorships focused on attacking the West, and you wind up with United Nations human rights officials who are not focused on human rights abuses in dictatorships but on attacking the West.”
The talk is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Moshe Zvi Bayewitz, z’l, in observance of his 18th yahrzeit. Mr. Neuer feels honored to be part of the event. “Dr. Bayewitz was my uncle,” he said. “He was a wonderful person, very sweet, gentle, kind, committed to Israel, and committed to the Jewish people.
“He was a model citizen, a model father, and a cherished uncle.”
Who: Hillel Neuer
What: Will talk about the battle for Israel and human rights at the United Nations. The talk is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Moshe Zvi Bayewitz, z’l, in observance of his 18th yahrzeit.
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck
When: Sunday, March 12, at 8 p.m. The program is free, but advance registration is required by Wednesday, March 8.
Register at: firstname.lastname@example.org