conference conundrum

Anti-Israel U.N. official to be feted at law conference sponsored by Morningstar law firm

Navi Pillay is receiving the International Law Association’s ‘Outstanding Achievement Award’ at a conference backed by White & Case

Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay holds a press conference at the Security Council in New York, United States, on April 8, 2014.

The law firm commissioned by Morningstar amid controversy over the financial services firm’s sale of products found to have an anti-Israel bias is co-sponsoring an upcoming conference at which controversial former U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay will be honored. 

Pillay, who heads the open-ended Commission of Inquiry targeting Israel, which has been condemned by members of the international body over its anti-Israel bias, will receive the “Outstanding Achievement Award” at the International Law Association’s International Law Weekend, slated for Oct. 20-21, in New York City.

White & Case is one of several co-sponsors of the conference, alongside Debevoise & Plimpton and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. White & Case came under fire for its sponsorship of last year’s conference, held in Chicago, which included a panel titled “Racism and the Crime of Apartheid in International Law” and featured Omar Shakir, an activist and Human Rights Watch staffer who was expelled from Israel in 2019 over his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The firms did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Following an outcry over the 2022 conference, White & Case condemned the session but did not withdraw its sponsorship of the conference. The law firm was also named as a co-sponsor of another anti-Israel event featuring Shakir held the same week at the University of Chicago; a spokesperson for White & Case denied that the firm was a co-sponsor. 

Morningstar retained White & Case to produce a report on the company’s ratings system, which White & Case found to have no systemic anti-Israel bias but fixable cases of potential bias. Critics of the report said that the sourcing for Morningstar’s ratings constituted systemic bias. Earlier this month, the attorneys general of Kentucky, Alabama and Montana announced they were moving forward with probes into Morningstar’s ratings system, which critics say has still not been adjusted to remove anti-Israel bias.

The chair of the International Law Association, Christine Chinkin, was one of the authors of the 2009 Goldstone report into the 2008-2009 conflict between Israel and Hamas, which was denounced by Jewish groups as containing antisemitic blood libel. Richard Goldstone, who chaired the U.N. inquiry that produced the report, has walked back some of the report’s claims. Five years after the report was written, Chinkin was nominated to be the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

American legislators have sought to shut down the Pillay’s Commission of Inquiry launched after the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in May 2021, but have so far failed to move forward on a bill introduced in the current and previous Congresses that would designate U.S. policy to “seek the abolition” of the commission. Last December, dozens of lawmakers called on U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield to cut off funding to the COI. A 2024 government funding bill currently under debate in the House would cut U.S. funding to the COI, but it’s unclear how that provision will fare in final negotiations with Senate Democrats. 

The State Department has also criticized the work of the COI, denouncing a commission report released in June 2022. Ned Price, at the time the State Department spokesperson, alleged that Pillay’s committee “represents a one-sided, biased approach that does nothing to advance the prospects for peace.”

A letter sent earlier this year by a bipartisan group of House members called the COI “an unprecedented, open-ended, and unfairly slanted investigation, which completely ignores the role of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.” The legislators wrote that the commission’s formation in 2021 was “a clear attempt by the United Nations Human Rights Council to target Israel.”

Pillay, who served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008-2014, has rejected criticism of the COI, and defended a committee member accused of antisemitism after he referred in an interview to a “Jewish lobby” and questioned whether Israel should be a member of the United Nations. The comments by Miloon Kothari were swiftly condemned by Ambassadors Deborah Lipstadt and Michèle Taylor, respectively the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism and the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

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