The war in Lebanon has drowned out the sound of another battle that has since come to an end. Krisztina Morvai, the Hungarian delegate to CEDAW, a UN organisation that fights discrimination against women, has managed to prevent her designated successor Andrea Peto, a historian and sociologist from taking her seat on the commission next year.
Morvai has also failed to have her mandate extended for another four years. Thus, from January, Hungary will not be represented on the CEDAW committee.
On 9 June, national missions to the UN received an unusual letter: Krisztina Morvai, who teaches at the ELTE law faculty alongside her UN responsibilities, was accusing her own government of giving into Israeli pressure in nominating not her for a four-year mandate on the CEDAW committee, but Andrea Peto, a Zionist women's group activist.
She wrote: "I was surprised to receive a letter from my government informing me that, contrary to their earlier plans, they were not nominating me for a second term on the CEDAW committee. Furthermore, they told me that Hungary had a new delegate: Dr Andrea Peto. Andrea Peto is a well-known Zionista. She is a founding member and head of an influential Hungarian Jewish women's organisation (Esztertaska)."
Morvai claims the Hungarian government was influenced in its decision by a complaint made against her by the Israeli government,.
Morvai wrote the letter two weeks before the election of 12 new members of the CEDAW committee, so the stakes were high. Her arguments meant that governments witheld their support for the Hungarian government's official delegate.
There are few traces of Morvai's several years in New York on the internet. But minutes obtained by HVG.hu show that she was preoccupied by one issue in particular. She was particularly excised by discrimination against Arab women living in Israel.
When CEDAW discussed a report on Israel last July, Morvai asked for information about the situation of women living in illegal Beduin villages and about "the broad underrepresentation" of Arab women in Israel. (Let us note parenthetically that we found no evidence in the minutes of her concern for the condition of women living in Islamic countries). Though Morvai called for constructive dialogue in her letter, Israel's deputy ambassador to the UN seems to have seen things differently. He wrote a letter to the chairperson of the committee, taking exception to the tone of the discussion and criticising the Hungarian delegate by name. (The committee chair rejected the complaint).
Krisztina Morvai continues in her letter: "Our committee was concerned by the fact that the Israeli delegation intervened so bluntly in the work of independent experts, questioning their integrity and, in particular, impugning my work and integrity as well. I discovered that the Israeli delegation had made a complaint to my government as well.
My government's 'peculiar apology to Israel' [ie. the nomination of a 'Zionist activist' - ed.], has been a shock to me. The elections of the CEDAW committee's new members will soon show whether the delegates will tolerate such a serious threat to the integrity of a UN human rights organisation."
She had good reason to hope that her letter, passionate in tone and seeking to compromise her government, would have an impact. This January, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Israeli Social Committee Against Torture (PCATI) took up Morvai's case. They issued a statement from their Geneva headquarters, saying that the Hungarian government has named "another individual, the founder and head of a Hungarian Zionist organisation" in place of their present delegate. They called for a thorough examination of Morvai's claims.
If these turned out to be true, they said, then measures should be taken to prevent the case setting a precedent for politically-motivated interventions into the Committee's work.
What does Krisztina Morvai say?
For Morvai, the election was a success. Andrea Peto did not receive the necessary votes. Neither did Morvai manage to retain her mandate for another four-year term in New York. In any case, from 2007, there will be no Hungarian delegate to this UN organisation. Let us leave aside the moral damage caused to the Hungarian government.
Turning to Morvai's "accusations," Esztertaska is indeed a feminist Jewish women's traditionalist cultural foundation with four members.
It began as a column in the journal Szombat. We would do well to be cautious about the term 'Zionist'. In 1991, the UN voted overwhelmingly to revoke a 1975 resolution sponsored by the Soviet Union which claimed: "Zionism is a form of racism and race discrimination." Today, however, if someone denigrates someone as a Zionist, then they are using the term in the context of that Soviet resolution or they are simply saying someone is Jewish. In this case, the latter possibility would seem worse.
We reached Morvai by telephone in New York. We asked her why there would be no Hungarian delegate in the CEDAW committee. She said she had been elected a member of the committee in a tight race four years ago, and she had been working hard there eve since. Her mandate had not been extended. Instead Andrea Peto, a "historian colleague," had been nominated by Peto's "good friend" Kinga Goncz, but Peto had not garnered the necessary votes.
When HVG.hu pointed out that Kinga Goncz had only become foreign minister in June, Krisztina Morvai replied that she had wielded influence earlier as Social Affairs Minister. We pointed out that we had seen the letter she had sent to the UN missions accusing her government of giving in to Israeli pressure in nominating Andrea Peto.
She replied: "The times when the government could not be criticised are over.
15 years ago, I would be in prison for it, but now we have freedom of speech."
And why did she lable Andrea Peto a "well-known Zionist activist," and why did she consider the four-member Esztertaska foundation influential? "Go to their home page, they themselves admit to being Zionists," Krisztina Morvai replied. Esztertaska's website contains no reference to Zionism.