Delegates arrive for the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2017. Photo via REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

Reform, but don’t leave UN Human Rights Council

Editor’s note: This opinion tackling the United Nations Human Rights Council is the “pro” argument published in conjunction with the “con” argument written by Roz Rothstein and Max Samarov, “When will the UN Human Rights Council follow its own mission?

Nearly three years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed me as its monitor — “special rapporteur” — on freedom of expression. I report to the council about the worst abuses of expression worldwide, such as attacks on journalists and independent media, members of vulnerable minorities, and the ability of anyone to seek, receive and impart information online. In this position, I know the council, its strengths and its weaknesses.

Composed of government representatives, the council gathers for several weeks every March, June and September in an ornate conference room at the Palais des Nations, the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, to proclaim a commitment to such fundamental human rights as the prohibition of torture, extrajudicial killing and arbitrary detention, as well as the rights to freedom of expression, religious belief and peaceful protest.

From my experience, I can say one thing with certainty: Activists around the world, in every country, value the council as a central global platform for their voices to be heard. In my missions to Turkey, Tajikistan and Japan last year, journalists, lawyers, judges, teachers, humanitarian workers and activists all sought the help of the U.N. — at the very least, its moral support. While a U.N. visit or statement may get lost in the Western media, in many countries around the world, a word from a U.N. official or the Council can instigate controversy for days, sometimes even leading to solutions.

To be sure, the council is not a human rights nirvana. Its flaws are well-known. Forty-seven governments — including the United States — are elected to sit on the council and all other governments have a seat in the room at the Palais. Many violate human rights norms regularly, some in repressive and violent ways. These flaws, according to our new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, seem to be moving the Trump administration to consider whether the United States should abandon the council seat it won last year.

I believe the case for leaving the council is extraordinarily weak. If the administration, like Barack Obama’s administration before it, strongly objects to the council’s “biased agenda item against Israel,” as Tillerson put it, then the place to fight that bias is from within. Few listen to those outside, and few outside have the tools or the leverage to make reform.

Others have made the case for why the council serves American interests. As Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department official and current head of PEN America, has summarized it in a must-read contribution to the debate, U.S. departure from the council would help cede control of the human rights agenda to authoritarians — exactly those that the council is supposed to resist and restrain. She notes that a council with the United States has historically been better for human rights globally, not to mention better for Israel.

These realpolitik arguments work. Leaving the council makes no sense if we are talking about U.S. national interests.

For me, as someone who heard of tikkun olam before human rights, the council has merit on its own. We constantly sought venues for our own demands for the rights of Soviet Jews during the years of the Cold War or for the rights of African-Americans during the civil rights era. In recognizing that kind of searching today, the council amplifies the messages of those deprived of a voice or denounced as enemies of their people in their home countries.

Consider the kind of discussion that can take place during council meetings. In an era when governments kill their opponents, jail their chroniclers and repress their critics, human rights talk may seem wildly out of sync with the times. Yet there at the Palais, one by one, individual human rights advocates rise from their seats in the back of the room and make their way to microphones so that every person there — every government representative, every U.N. official — can hear. They have come from all corners of the world, and they say what the governments need to hear, calling them out for their abuses in front of a global audience.

You might hear, as I have, Bahraini advocates identify friends and family members held in prison merely for criticizing the government, some for doing so on Facebook or Twitter. You might hear criticism of Saudi Arabia for its jailing and flogging of bloggers, or condemnation of Turkey’s massive attack on the media, the bureaucracy and opposition politicians. You might learn of the ways in which Iran silences and represses its Baha’i minority, in areas such as education, music and religious tradition.

You might hear from a refugee who has fled totalitarian North Korea or war-ravaged South Sudan, a member of the Muslim Rohingya community subject to attack and statelessness in Myanmar, or from a Tibetan activist recounting the repression of Chinese authorities. You could be brought to outrage from stories of hunger in Venezuela, driven by authoritarian governance, or of fear from stories of LGBT communities in Cuba, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda and elsewhere.

This is more than idle talk; these individual interventions can have impact. The voices of victims and advocates have helped lead to important outcomes: special commissions to tell the truth about human rights abuses in North Korea or the brutality of ISIS and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria or special monitors to report on the human rights crises in Iran, Cambodia, Myanmar, South Sudan and many other places — including, yes, the West Bank and Gaza. In some cases, stories told in Geneva have helped lead to sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council in New York.

In response to advocacy by nongovernmental organizations, the council also has created special mandates and appointed individual experts to monitor human rights issues worldwide, including freedom of religious belief, peaceful protest, violence against women, racism and housing (and the one I hold on freedom of expression). It has condemned all manner of human rights abuses, from anti-Semitism to discrimination against women, from racist crimes to attacks on workers’ rights. Through its Universal Periodic Review, the council reports on every country’s human rights behavior, allowing local and international activists a role in that process.

Leaving the council makes little sense if we still are to maintain that human rights play some significant role in America’s engagement in the world, even if not a leading or pivotal one. The U.N. isn’t perfect, and neither is the United States. But walking away from human rights is not who we are, and it’s not where we should go.

Reform the council, yes. Criticize its biases, sure. But recommit to it. Fix it. And make it work for those who need it worldwide.

David Kaye is a law professor at UC Irvine School of Law and the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression. He can be found at @davidakaye and

PRO PROP 37: Should genetically engineered foods be labeled?

[Read the con argument here]

Did you know that you have been enrolled in the largest research study ever conducted in the United States, but you never signed a consent form or agreed to participate? That’s because since 1996, you — and basically everyone you know — have been eating genetically engineered foods.

Genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are created by forcing a piece of DNA from a totally different species, such as bacteria or viruses, into the DNA of a plant or animal. For example, genetically engineered soybeans have DNA from bacteria and viruses spliced into their DNA to help them tolerate weed killers such as Roundup.

This genetic feat creates a whole new species of plant that would have never occurred in nature. Most soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, some zucchini, yellow squash and alfalfa are genetically modified. Products such as oil, high fructose corn syrup and sugar are created from these crops and added to processed foods. This explains why nearly 80 percent of processed foods, including baby formula and most fast foods, contain GMOs.

The question is, are GMOs safe for us and the environment? The answers are not clear. When we decided to write an article on GMOs, we quickly realized there is no evidence that GMOs are safe for humans. We also found that the Food and Drug Administration did not do its own safety testing before GMOs were put into our food supply. The “studies” done by the companies that created the seeds compared genetically modified corn to regular corn and found that they were similar and thus thought to be safe.

However, there are animal studies with negative findings, including organ damage, tumors, infertility and immune system changes. Toxins from GMO corn and soy have been found in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their umbilical cords. It is clear that more research is needed.

The environment is another issue. What are the implications when a genetically engineered plant crossbreeds with other plants? Monarch butterflies are declining due to the destruction of milkweed. Super bugs and super weeds are already appearing. What other consequences are possible? Do we really want to irreversibly change the face of plant life with unknown consequences?

The bottom line is that we have a product in our food supply with unknown health and environmental implications. At the very least, we should have these foods labeled. However, try as we might, we cannot make that happen in the United States. Polls show 90 percent of people want them labeled, but the biotech companies and food manufacturers do not. If their products are beneficial and safe, why not be proud of those products and label them? Nearly 50 countries, including China, require GMO labeling, and some countries ban GMOs. Don’t we have a right to know what’s in our food?

What do Jewish leaders have to say about labeling? The Resolution on Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods issued by Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action states that “GE [genetically engineered] products ought to be labeled as such, since the concealment of vital information (and this information is vital, important to the decision of the consumer to use it) is a violation of the prohibition against deceitful advertising.” (Shulchan Aruch) Similarly, a Conservative rabbi and a Chabad rabbi told us they support labeling because “it’s important for Jews to know what is in their food.”

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) says that kashrut would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Surprisingly, kashrut agencies may decide that salmon with eel genes (which may soon be sold unlabeled) is kosher. But, observant Jews may feel otherwise and want to avoid it. Vegetarians may prefer to avoid ice cream that is now sold with GMO yeast with fish genes in it. 

Everyone has the right to be informed, through labeling, and thereby avoid foods that violate their personal standards of conscience and religious observance.

Proposition 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, will be on the November ballot. Companies such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta will probably create ads telling us that labeling is expensive and unnecessary because GMOs are safe. But, prices did not increase when Europe introduced GMO labeling in 1997 or when companies began labeling trans fats in the U.S.

Food labels already tell us if a food has high fructose corn syrup, trans fat or is irradiated. Why can’t we know if it’s genetically engineered? These companies’ biggest fear is that once GMOs are labeled, we won’t want to eat them anymore. And that may happen, just like it did when we found out there was pink slime in our hamburgers.

Our country is based on a free-market economy. If you supply a product the public does not want, the market dictates it will go away. So, biotech companies and food manufacturers will probably spend $50 million to $100 million to prevent the labeling of GMOs.

Whether you are concerned about health and fertility, the environment, or kosher or ethical eating, we hope you will join us and vote for the right to know when there are genetically engineered ingredients in our food.

Adapted with permission from an article at

Carole Bartolotto, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in exercise physiology, has worked in the field of diet and health for more than 20 years. She blogs about nutrition and health at Lisa Goldwag Kassner lives in Northridge and can be reached at

COUNTER-POINT: Romney vs. Obama vis-à-vis Israel

[Read the counter-point here]

In his strongly stated piece “Romney vs. Obama vis-à-vis Israel,” Daniel Pipes uses partisan posturing and highly misleading, discredited assertions to distort President Barack Obama’s strong support for Israel — and to suggest that former Gov. Mitt Romney would somehow be a better friend to Israel. This, despite effusive praise of Obama by Israeli leaders across the political spectrum — and despite the fact that Romney, for all his platitudes, has failed to offer a single tangible area where he would provide better support for Israel’s security.

Pipes’ article echoes other partisan Republican missives that have chosen to ignore what Israel’s leaders say about Obama’s strong support for Israel, in order to distort that record. These distortions, which mischaracterize the actions of a friend, do Israel no favors.

One could spill endless amounts of ink on the fact that Pipes’ arguments are backed up mainly by his opinions, dubious anecdotes and outright dishonest photo “captions.”  Those claims, in contrast to the Obama record, seem appropriate for a Romney campaign that has remained almost entirely devoid of substantive policy prescriptions when it comes to Israel and its greatest nemesis, Iran.

But it is probably better to focus on  Obama’s actions to enhance the security of America’s ally Israel, rather than dignify Pipes’ spurious attempt to bolster Romney’s virtually nonexistent foreign credentials. And I would prefer to hear what top Israeli leaders have to say about these issues than another round of partisan attacks.

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that this president has done more than any other American president in history to enhance Israel’s security, raising the level of U.S.-Israel security cooperation to unprecedented levels. In 2010, Obama personally requested that Congress grant $205 million to Israel to help fund Iron Dome, which has successfully intercepted close to 80% of the short-range rockets fired from Gaza. This past May, the president granted an additional $70 million in immediate assistance to expand the Iron Dome program.

In addition, the president more than doubled funding from the previous administration’s levels (from $52 million in 2008 to more than $110 million this year) for David’s Sling, Israel’s missile defense program. Finally, in the midst of these challenging economic times, the president has requested $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel in 2013, the most aid ever sent to Israel.

Against Iran, the president has enforced the toughest sanctions ever passed in an effort to thwart the nuclear program of Israel’s greatest enemy. His deft political maneuvering has brought about an international sanctions regime that includes Russia and China, two states that under the prior U.S. administration had refused to take part in efforts to isolate Iran. In addition, this president has signed into law the most stringent unilateral sanctions against Iran in history, including sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank.

Most importantly, the president has vowed that he will use any means necessary to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear goals. As the president declared earlier this year:  “Iran’s leaders know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” 

At a time when the Middle East is experiencing seismic unrest and the Iranian threat is becoming even more dire, this president understands that Israel’s security is its primary asset, and he has done more than any other president to ensure that Israel remains secure

While the president’s record of defending Israel’s security speaks to his commitment to Israel’s safety, his diplomatic defense of Israel when it mattered most — reflected in his 100 percent pro-Israel voting record at the U.N. and, most recently, his reported personal insistence on inserting language in the Democratic Party platform that declares Jerusalem the capital of Israel — speaks to his personal commitment to the Jewish state and has won him the much-expressed gratitude of Israel’s leaders.

The president’s impassioned defense of Israel last September at the U.N. against the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral statehood bid earned him a “badge of honor” in the eyes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And his administration’s veto of a U.N. Security Resolution condemning Israeli settlements won him praise from the prime minister’s office. His immediate intervention to save the lives of six Israelis trapped inside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was, in the words of former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, “leadership of historic dimensions,” to which Netanyahu added, “We owe [the president] a special measure of gratitude.” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon summed up these sentiments last year when he said: “I can tell you in a very categoric way, I believe also in a very authoritative way, that we have not had a better friend than President Obama.”   

So despite the partisan jabs from Daniel Pipes and his allies on the far right, whose purpose is gaining Republican votes rather than supporting the bipartisan consensus Israel requires for its ongoing security, I prefer to rely on the comments of Israel’s leaders, whose agenda is Israel’s security, not partisan gain in U.S. politics. Israel’s President Shimon Peres perhaps summarized their views best when he said: “I think he’s a great president and I think he’s a great friend of Israel, and I say that without any hesitations.”

Mel Levine (D-Calif.) was a United States congressman from 1983 to 1993.

PRO: Should rabbis endorse candidates?

[Read the con argument here]

I celebrate the courage of the more than 613 rabbis who have chosen to endorse President Obama for a second term. It is impossible for me to represent all of them. Each rabbi must make his or her decision based on a number of factors, including the possibility that they could lose their jobs, damage their reputations or alienate donors and board members. There are consequences for each member of Rabbis for Obama in this diverse and distinguished group. Significantly, this group has doubled in size from 2008 to 2012.


I can speak only for myself and give my reasons for endorsing the president through Rabbis for Obama. I note with pride that none of the rabbis endorsing President Obama does so by announcing his or her congregational or institutional affiliations. We are aware that we must observe the law that disallows our religious institutions from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Each of the rabbinic endorsers does so — to borrow a phrase from Rabbi David Wolpe, who gave a prayer at the recent Democratic National Convention — “off the pulpit.”  Rabbi Wolpe did not endorse the president.    

But when we rabbis became “teachers in Israel,” we did not forfeit our First Amendment rights. The pulpits of congregations are there for teaching Torah. Rabbis are allowed to advocate from the pulpit for issues and values but not candidates. Even in the area of issues advocacy, prudence and good congregational democratic process calls for us to be sure that a diversity of opinion is presented.

In the 2008 presidential election and again in 2012, we have been confronted with a profound challenge to the integrity of political discourse. The unprecedented level of falsehood, innuendo and demonization spread about President Obama was and is without precedent in our political system. That level of dishonest political rhetoric reminded me of a story of the consequences of the silence of the ancient rabbis. According to our legends, the rabbis stood by silently and allowed an act of sinat hinam (baseless hate) to boil over, and eventually it led to the upending of Jewish history, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the end of Jewish sovereignty for 1,800 years. This is the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, whose feud had disastrous consequences. The silence of the rabbis is a cautionary tale for our time, too.

In 2008, the whisper campaign that circulated in the Jewish community was delivered through the Internet. The lies claimed that Obama was disqualified from office because he was a closeted Muslim, was anti-Israel, was not born in the United States and was a socialist-radical. All these verbal attacks continued through the campaign and during the past four years. They are beyond the pale of normal political rhetoric. For the second time in 2012, the Republican Party did not break with its “wing nuts” but instead tried to incorporate, fund and appease these factions. These rumors and lies had to be responded to in a public and organized way by Judaism’s teachers primarily because the “doozies” reflected badly on the good name of Judaism.

I grew up in Barry Goldwater’s Arizona and still remember real conservative Republicans. Certainly, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican and now independent, remembers a different Republican Party. He, too, did not take a vow of silence when he left the Republican Party. The two senators from Maine, Olympia  Snowe and Susan Collins, issued their demurrals, but to no avail.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, the “dark money” groups paid for the distribution of 28 million copies of “Obsession.” This scurrilous movie and the accompanying “culture of lies” mobilized for a new round of Islamophobia. The movie was an attempt to brand Obama as a Muslim and create a diversion from the economic free fall at the end of the Bush administration. The movie stirred up the Christian right, especially Christians United for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition, which launched an unprecedented assault against political and civic norms on the Web site I co-founded,

My reading of the underlying message of hate and disdain against the president and the manufacturing of religious hatred toward Muslims impelled me to join Rabbis for Obama. My Judaism cannot countenance sly messages of religious hate toward fellow Jews or Muslims or any religion. Jewish history reminds me of the apostasy committed by the majority of the German Catholic and Protestant churches’ priests and ministers in the 1930s.

Noted philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book, “The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age,” analyzes the nature of the fear based on religion with which so many communities continue to grapple. We need to articulate the moral principles and practices to evaluate this fear and to question the actions the fear motivates. No teacher with integrity can sit quietly on the sidelines.

[Read the con argument here]

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak lives and works in Los Angeles and Poland.