Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power at the Israel Middle East Model United Nations Conference on “Building a More Model UN”

| Feb. 15, 2016

So I’d like to start with an apology: I’m keeping you from the dance. The dance! What, you’re not that excited to go to the dance? [Laughter.] Okay, that’s what I thought. Someone – I would hang out with that person at the dance.

Thank you for the generous introduction, and for reading the book on Sergio. And a special thanks to all of the organizers who put this amazing conference together, particularly Aviva, who puts heart and soul and everything into this. [Applause.]

Before diving into the issues that have brought us here, let me start off by acknowledging the people without whom many of you would never have heard or thought about Model UN, much less known how to get a resolution through the Third Committee. And I’m speaking, of course, of your faculty advisors. One of the greatest diplomats my country has ever produced, Benjamin Franklin, once said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Well, your faculty advisors have not only taught you, they have involved you in a way that will forever leave its mark on you and will make you engaged citizens of your communities and of the world. So please join me in giving those faculty advisors a huge round of applause. [Applause.]

Now, when I was your age, I never would have imagined that I would get to sit at the United Nations behind a placard that said “The United States of America”. I grew up in Ireland, and my mother brought me to the United States when I was nine years old. By the time I got to high school in Atlanta, Georgia, my dream was to play professional sports – preferably basketball. When it became abundantly clear that I was not going to play professional sports or break the gender barrier to the NBA, I decided to do the next best thing which was to try writing about sports.

That’s what I was doing the summer after my first year in college, when I took an internship at a local news station. And one day, I was sitting there at that news station taking notes on an Atlanta Braves game so I could help cut the sports highlights for the evening news, when footage from another screen caught my eye; and it was footage from Tiananmen Square, in China, where kids my age – and your age – were peacefully gathering to demand basic freedoms like the right to vote, and where they were being brutally beaten and mowed down as a result of having done so. It was raw and it was incredibly disturbing – and honestly, to this day I don’t know if I hadn’t been sitting where I was, when I was, that I would’ve seen it and focused on it in the way that I did. But once I did, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And that was when it hit me that this was what I really wanted to be focused on. I wanted to focus on what was happening in the world to real people. I wanted to focus on those young people and the dreams that they had and the aspirations they had, even though I had huge doubts whether I could ever do anything that would be helpful or supportive. This propelled me first to become a war reporter, which I did in the Balkans in the 1990s. Then I became a human rights advocate, trying to raise my voice about atrocities like the ones I had witnessed in the former Yugoslavia. And ultimately, all of this led me to go and work for a young Senator from the city of Chicago named Barack Obama. Now if there is a lesson to be learned from the path that I took, I don’t think it is to go and work your first year in college at a sports station, necessarily. It is just to keep your eyes open. Whatever you do, just look up. Especially those of you who are on your gadgets and your smartphones the entire time – you have to look up, just to see what will catch your imagination – what will inspire you.

While I eventually – after a lot of bumps on the road from watching the footage in Tiananmen Square to where I am now – but when I eventually became American Ambassador to the UN, I found myself in a chair that sometimes felt like a front row seat to watching the world unravel. There’s the great Shakespeare line from The Tempest, where sometimes it feels that “hell is empty and all the devils are here.” Do you ever feel that way? Not here, at the Model UN conference, but when you read the newspaper, when you watch television, that’s how it can feel. And you, I think, appreciate that uniquely living in one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

The global refugee crisis continues to get worse. Not only are more people displaced today than at any point since the Second World War, but wars are lasting longer, so those people who get displaced can’t go home. The war goes on, they remain out of their country. They long to get back to their homes, but they can’t because the conflict that displaced them persists. Now some communities have welcomed refugees, others though have turned them away, or even persecuted them. Just last week, an anti-immigrant rally in Prague drew some 8,000 people; and shortly thereafter, a group of thugs firebombed a center that helps refugees. Rather than condemn such xenophobic acts, some politicians – including in my own country – have argued that we should start using religious criteria to determine who should be allowed into our nations, simply because a minority of individuals and groups perversely use faith to justify their acts of terrorism.

We see people being lined up in villages in Nigeria, in schools in Iraq, in university dorms in Kenya, in a kosher supermarket in France, and being asked the same question: “What is your religion?” – and being executed if they give the wrong answer. We see the monstrous terrorist group ISIL enslaving women and girls, simply based on their religion or their ethnicity, and selling them – young girls – like cattle at markets.

And yet, faced with these and so many challenges, the kinds of challenges for which the United Nations was created 70 years ago to confront, the UN – the real one – can seem at best ineffective, or at worst part of the problem. Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, occupies part of neighboring Ukraine. The government of Syria, a UN member state, blocks humanitarian assistance to people in besieged areas and starves them to death. UN peacekeepers deployed to war-torn countries like the Central African Republic end up sexually abusing the people who look to them for protection.

Consider an example that hits closer to home. As you all know, the UN Charter guarantees “the equal rights of nations large and small,” and yet we have seen member states seek to use the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, and even the most arcane UN committees in ways that cross the line from legitimate criticisms of Israel’s policies to attempts to delegitimize the state of Israel itself. The only country in the world with a standing agenda item at the Human Rights Council is not North Korea, a totalitarian state that is currently holding an estimated 100,000 people in gulags; not Syria, which has gassed its people – lots of them. It is Israel.

Bias has extended well beyond Israel as a country, Israel as an idea – it even extends to Israeli organizations. Some of you may know the group ZAKA – an Israeli humanitarian group that helps save lives in disasters and ensures proper burial for the victims of those tragedies. ZAKA not only works here in Israel, but it responds to natural and manmade disasters worldwide, as it did in New York after 9/11, and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Yet when ZAKA was nominated in 2013 for accreditation by the UN’s NGO committee – and this accreditation is what gives NGOs the right to participate in UN meetings, the right to assert their voices, the right to raise causes that really can matter in the world – when ZAKA was put forward it was denied approval. Five subsequent times the committee met, and five times member states blocked ZAKA – not because of the quality of its work, people weren’t that interested in the quality of its work, but simply because ZAKA is an Israeli organization.

Of course, bias at the UN is not limited to Israel. At present, of the 193 UN Member States, only 36 have women as their permanent representatives. Thirty-six out of 193. I find myself now the only woman ambassador on the 15-member UN Security Council. One woman out of 15, in 2016 – what’s up with that? Since the UN was created 70 long years ago, the General Assembly has had 70 presidents. Two women in 70 years. And as you may know, there has never been a woman Secretary-General. This problem is not limited to the United Nations. The United Nations is a reflection, of course, of a larger phenomenon in the world. Only around one-quarter of Knesset members are women, a proportion that is better than the U.S. Congress, where women account for less than one-fifth of members.

Now, hearing me rattle off all the ways in which the UN is failing to live up to its principles, you might think that I was trying to dissuade you from trying to make the institution more of a model United Nations. But the opposite is true.

One of my predecessors and mentors Richard Holbrooke used to say that blaming the UN for the world’s problems is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the New York Knicks play badly. It’s a building. Now, adapted for this audience, that’s like blaming Bloomfield Stadium when Maccabi Tel Aviv loses. [Laughter.] That works better. But he was right! Whether it is on the basketball court or in international diplomacy, it is the players who make the game – it’s not the building.

When we see bias, injustice, or the continuation of strife within the United Nations, it is not because the UN created all of this. It is because the UN gathers governments and gathers problems and being in the UN doesn’t change the biases of those governments, or doesn’t change the approach of those governments to those problems. But that need not stop us all from investing in addressing these problems, in changing the UN, in changing the world. And if enough individuals come together, if enough countries dedicate themselves to finding answers and to promoting common security and common humanity, the UN will be a representation of that. Just as at its best it is today.

For all of its flaws, there is still no substitute for the legitimacy that the UN can offer, and the one-of-a-kind platform it gives to unite the international community around tackling common threats. Often threats that no one country, no matter how powerful, could ever conceive of tackling by itself.

Just look at what this UN has gotten done in the last year alone. More than 11,000 people lost their lives in the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa – the profound loss from which is still being felt by their families and their communities, and by thousands of survivors still struggling to overcome the stigma. But that toll would have been so much higher – we’d still be dealing with it – if we and other nations, including Israel, had not rallied the international community to step up at the United Nations. And the world did step up. There was a curve that the scientists showed us – the epidemiologists – about how many people were going to be infected by Ebola. It was more than a million people. And the world came together first to bend the curve, and then finally to end the curve.

The tough multilateral sanctions put in place by the UN on Iran – amplifying those that the United States and our European partners had put in place – force multiply. These sanctions played a critically important role in bringing the Iranian government to the negotiating table, and to keeping it there until a deal could be reached that cuts off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.

Today, more than 100,000 UN peacekeepers are deployed – two-thirds of them to active conflict areas – where they’re doing everything from disarming violent militia, to protecting civilians under attack, and to ensuring humanitarian aid reaches communities in need. And most of these peacekeepers – because they are not defending their own countries, they’re not defending their own families, their own communities – they come home, they don’t get parades, they don’t get celebrated; half the time people in their country and their communities don’t even know where they’ve been – it’s far away. They’re risking their lives for strangers. They’re saving strangers.

It is because the UN has this potential – and because today’s world presents such daunting threats – that we have to continue to work, day in day out, to make the UN a tool that helps eradicate injustice and conflict, rather than reflecting injustice or exacerbating conflict.

And we’re seeing progress toward this end. Remember the example I gave of ZAKA – the Israeli humanitarian group that was unfairly blocked for five straight sessions, denied accreditation. Well, we resolved to change that, and together with our partners in the Israeli mission to the UN, we methodically worked the phones, we cornered diplomats in the hallway or as they left the restroom – a very important diplomatic tactic I urge you to employ. We lobbied in capitals – just a very simple goal; just look at the facts, look at what this organization does. We pushed and we prodded and one by one the votes changed. We moved votes from no’s to abstentions, and from abstentions to yeses. And just a few weeks ago, ZAKA finally won the accreditation it had long deserved. [Applause.] And it will now get to bring its perspective to the United Nations. But that’s what it takes; you’ve got to work it one campaign, one issue at a time.

And fighting for Israel’s equal treatment at the United Nations is incredibly important. We don’t do this because of the outsize contributions that Israel and Israeli organizations like ZAKA have shown that they can make when they are given equal opportunity, but we also do it because we recognize that any bias at the UN, where one state gets treated differently – whether it’s against a nation, a religion, or a human being because of who he or she loves, another very common bias at the UN – any bias actually ends up undermining the legitimacy of the UN itself – the principles of equality and non-discrimination that it needs to stand for.
That is why it is so critical that we work to make the UN also an ally in combating anti-Semitism, particularly in a climate of rising attacks around the world. For some of you in this audience, this issue is deeply personal. Some seniors out there may know Lea Chocron who was up here minutes ago, who played a leading role in your model UN a few years ago.

Lea and her family lived in Paris until she was nine, when they moved to London so her father could take a job. It was while abroad that they started to hear of more attacks on Jews back in France. It started when two of Lea’s friends, both just 11-years-old at the time, were called “dirty Jews” and beaten on the Paris metro. More incidents followed. Their neighbors from Paris told them of anti-Israel rallies where anti-Semitic chants were shouted, and of synagogues being defaced. When the family visited France for a bar mitzvah, Lea’s father no longer wore his kippah outside of synagogue, carrying it instead in an unmarked bag. After several years in London, when the opportunity arose for Lea’s family to move back to Paris – the city that had long been their home – they decided to move to Israel instead.

It is because of rising anti-Semitism that the United States worked with Israel, the European Union, and Canada to organize the first-ever UN meeting on anti-Semitism last year, pressing countries to come with concrete pledges to confront the problem. In the same assembly chamber where, 40 years earlier, the General Assembly had adopted the infamous resolution declaring “Zionism is racism,” that same assembly hall, more than 50 countries committed to taking steps to stop anti-Semitism, such as appointing a special envoy to counter anti-Semitism’s spread.

Rooting out entrenched discrimination of any kind can be extremely challenging, even in established democracies like the United States. It has been more than six decades since the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for black and white kids to go to separate schools, effectively outlawing segregation in America.

Yet a string of high profile killings of young black men and women by police has brought to the surface an enduring sense among African Americans that, even though our laws guarantee equal rights for all, in real life too often inequality persists and those laws are not applied equally across race or circumstance. And while criticism of these problems is at times difficult for our government and our communities to hear, that criticism, that debate, are crucial parts of strengthening our democracy.

Now, tackling these kinds of challenges may feel far off, but you don’t have to wait to become UN ambassadors to help tackle problems like these. You can begin to make the change right here. And many of you, I gather, are already doing that.

Take a bias I mentioned earlier – the underrepresentation of women at the UN. Look around the room at your fellow delegates and you will notice that in the UN that you have created, there are as many young women as young men. In fact, I’ve been told that this year, young women actually outnumber young men at the conference. [Applause.] And while the UN – the real UN – has never itself had a woman Secretary-General, three of the last five Secretary-Generals here at Model UN have been young women – including Lea Chocron. [Applause.] That is a model United Nations – a true model United Nations. So to the young women in the audience today I say: I hope that one day one – or even several of you – will be sitting behind the placard that reads “Israel” at the United Nations; or when the day comes that the parties negotiate a two-state solution, the placard that reads “Palestine.” I hope that that day comes for young girls in this audience, that you represent your people. [Applause.]

Or why not Secretary- General? Why not? Now, to the young men in the audience I say, you should fight for more seats at the table for your female colleagues – not only at the UN, but also in the Knesset, in boardrooms, in classrooms, and everywhere else that they can lead. [Appluase.] You know what your friends can do, you know what your sisters can do, you know what your mother has done, you know the difference it can make.

Let me give you another example, which relates to an issue that is front and center in many of your lives – ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are more than 650 students here today from over 40 high schools. Your Model UN members include Jews, Muslims, and Christians; Bedouins and Ethiopian-Israelis. You’ve come from Nazareth, Haifa, and Lod – to name just a few places. You have representatives here from East Jerusalem.

And yet, you don’t need me to tell you that these days it is extremely rare that a group as diverse as yours comes together under one roof – or even in one neighborhood. For some of you, joining Model UN was the first time you had the chance to meet people of different faiths. And that is why it is so important that you are here together. You’re living at a time in which many voices in your world are telling you that even the simple act of meeting with the other side is dangerous, naïve, or disloyal. You have to continue to prove them wrong. No path has ever been built to peace without sides coming together to listen to one another. All of our faiths teach us that, as does our history.

And you must strive not only to come together, but ultimately to wade side-by-side into the toughest issues. Because it is you and your children and the generations following them who will reap the benefits of the peace you build, or else endure the suffering of ongoing strife. And I know it may feel discouraging to know that so many before you have tried and not succeeded. But remember that even your most modest efforts have the power to show your families, your communities, and ultimately the world that what seems insurmountable is in fact within reach.

Just ask some of your peers from the Conflict Resolution Program here at Model UN, which is made up of a few dozen of your colleagues. Instead of representing nations, the students in this program represent themselves, and the challenges they tackle are their own. The aim is to foster an honest dialogue with “the other side,” whoever that “other” is for each student.

Let me close by sharing two stories that show why programs like this are so important.

A few days before one of the group’s meetings, an Arab-Israeli carried out a terrorist attack in which three people were killed – two Jewish-Israelis and an Arab-Israeli. As it happened, an Arab-Israeli student in the conflict resolution program came from the same town as the attacker. After the attack, new security measures were put in place in and around this town. The student’s parents said to him: We don’t want you to go to the next meeting; it’s not safe. The journey was a long one and they worried that, in the charged atmosphere following the attack, something could happen to their boy. The student was scared too – not only about traveling to the meeting, but also about how his peers might see him differently in light of the attack. But he decided in the end that that was exactly the reason he had to go to the meeting. So he convinced his parents and, when the day came, he set out on the trip. He took longer than usual, and he felt on edge the entire way there, but he made it to the meeting.

And when he arrived, he told his fellow students about the attack and how different his town felt after it. He said, “I was afraid to come here today, but I knew it was important to show that what happened does not define me, and it should not stop me from taking part in this effort.”

Now, just think for one moment about how much courage it took for that young man to make the journey, and to say what he did. I doubt his colleagues – some of you, I’m sure – will ever forget the choice he made, because it showed from the kind of brave decisions, it showed that those decisions can be made, that each of us has agency. And his story shows how the actions of just one person – a high-schooler like you – can help lay the groundwork for greater empathy and trust between the sides as we face our fears, as we put ourselves in the shoes of others.

Now for the second story. Last weekend, the student participants traveled to a community center in Lod, where their facilitators – an Arab-Israeli woman, Faten, and a Jewish-Israeli man, Dror – split them up into groups. Each group was assigned to meet with a representative of a different community in Lod – Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, and modern Orthodox Jews – and each was assigned to interview them about their lives. What brought them to Lod? Why did they stay in a mixed community? What were the challenges of coexistence?

Later in the day, the three student groups were given a scenario: Imagine the community is given a donation to open a playground for small kids to play. How should it be set up in a way that would benefit all communities in Lod? Each group was asked to play the role of the community that it had interviewed. Arab-Israeli students found themselves speaking for Lod’s Ethiopian Jews, Orthodox Jewish students for Lod’s Arab-Israelis. Some wanted separate days for their group; others felt everyone should be allowed to come to the playground when they wanted. The groups argued. They listened. And after a few hours, they arrived at a compromise: certain weekdays would be assigned to individual groups, and other days would be open to everyone. That way, every group would feel that they had a chance to use the resource.

After they had reached a compromise, the facilitators Faten and Dror shared something unexpected with the students: this scenario had actually happened in Lod. And just like the students, the three communities had come together with mediators to figure out how to set up a playground. And amazingly the students, by putting themselves in the shoes of others, had reached almost the same compromise as the real people of Lod.

This experience had a profound impact on the participants. A young Arab-Israeli student wrote that the exercise had taught her to stop looking at people as just Arabs or Jews. Instead, she said, “Now I look and I see humans that are trying to find safety and equality.” She said that being able to reach a compromise, and knowing that actual communities in real life had done the same, felt empowering and gave her hope. “If we young Arabs and Jews could sit together and debate and find a resolution,” she said, “also those in the higher positions such as our government could sit down together and compromise.”

Today, you sit behind placards of countries that are not your own. You speak in their voices. You advocate for their interests. But when you walk out of this conference, you will take on a more challenging role – you will represent yourself. You’ll be the ambassador of you. And you will do so at time of profound conflict, in your communities and in the world. And it can be tempting, given all the prejudice, and injustice, and violence in the world to want to just throw up your hands and say I give up – these problems are too big, too intractable.

But what you are doing here shows that these are problems that can be overcome. Whether tackling those challenges within your community or tackling challenges faced by members of the United Nations, what’s needed is actually not all that different. You’ve got to be candid and clear-eyed about the problems. You’ve got to learn to walk in the shoes of others. You cannot underestimate the transformational power that individuals have to make change. If you do that you will, in fact, bring the world closer to the model United Nations that you seek. Thank you.


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