Many people think of the United Nations as a forum of 193 member states, each of which operates as a free agent, and which coalesces around resolutions depending on national interest. That would be true, up to a point.
In fact, the United Nations is divided into regional groups and blocs that skew the voting, like the “Non-Aligned” nations (120 countries) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (57 countries). Such alignments often work against the notion of independent, fair policymaking by member states, and more in the direction of a herd mentality, which explains the routinely lopsided votes against Israel at the United Nations over the decades.
If all were right in the world, Israel would be a member of the Asia-Pacific Group at the United Nations (known until 2011 as the Asian Group), which includes such countries as Iraq, Saudi Arabia—and Iran and Syria. Cyprus is also a member, as are such countries as Japan, India, and the Philippines. Notwithstanding some friends in the group, Israel’s inclusion has been repeatedly blocked by its incessant adversaries. Until 2000 Israel belonged to no regional group. It was an orphan in an organization whose internal deliberations often center on being able to hang your diplomatic hat inside a group of your neighbors.
After a sustained campaign over the course of several years, Israel, at the urging of the United States, was granted inclusion in the Western European and Others Group (WEOG, which includes the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, many of the European states and Turkey) – but only for meetings of the group in New York. Much was said at the time about this being a “first step,” with the assumption that Israel could later join the group for deliberations in Geneva, the site of the U.N. Human Rights Council, and other venues. That has not happened, as inclusion requires a consensus of the members, a few of which have blocked Israel from participating.
Being included is not just a matter of symbolism or prestige. Being at the table of fellow democracies (if not regional neighbors) when discussing policy positions on human rights violations in Iran, Zimbabwe, North Korea or Syria is vital. Not being allowed at the table sends a message of exclusion, which fits in with the efforts of the Palestinians and their friends to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state.
Israel’s marginalization as an effective outsider in Geneva is particularly egregious because the Human Rights Council has been a constant center of Israel-bashing within the U.N. system. Israel is the only country for which a special agenda item (Item 7) is reserved at each Council session. That invective-filled agenda item is constituted of a basket of resolutions relating to charges of human rights abuses by Israel against Palestinians. All this despite past and current efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Moreover, the retention by the Council of Richard Falk, a self-promoter who among other things supports Hamas and incessantly directs vitriol at both Israel and the United States as Special Rapporteur and the Council’s initiation and endorsement of the now-discredited Goldstone Report on the 2009 Israeli counterterrorism campaign in Gaza, have served as political weapons against Israel, resulting in zero objectivity by the U.N.’s primary human rights apparatus when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
A year-and-a-half ago, Israel, having thrown its hands up in frustration over the cold-shoulder it regularly experiences in Geneva, decided that it would suspend engagement with the Council. By pulling back, it sent a message that it would not continue to be bullied by blocs of antagonistic U.N. members, some of whom would prefer a world without a Jewish state. One result of this pullback was a postponement of Israel’s taking part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), an assessment of human rights practices which, under the terms of the formation of the Council in 2007, each U.N. member state undergoes – though democracies are frequently scrutinized more harshly than tyrannies.
The rescheduled UPR for Israel is now set for late October. A number of countries have urged Israel to reengage with the Council, and subject itself to the review process, notwithstanding what will surely be especially withering opprobrium. The thinking goes that under the review protocol, Israel has the right to respond, and could do so, as part of the UPR.
Those who opine that it is time for Israel to once again participate in Geneva, if they are to have credibility, should also advocate for Israel to finally be admitted as a full participant in WEOG deliberations in Geneva and be freed from the second-class citizenship that has been thrust upon it by being a group participant only in New York. They should also insist that Item 7 be eliminated. Why should Israel be the only country which is singled out for a special item at the Human Rights Council, while real human rights abusers, from Teheran to Damascus to Pyongyang, manage to wheedle their way through the system without such “special” treatment?
And even if Item 7 were not yet to be eliminated, given the heavy anti-Israel sentiment at the Council, what about pledges from European countries and other democracies not to participate in discussions and voting falling under this discriminatory category? Surely, such a commitment would send a message demanding fairness if the United Nations is to be taken seriously.
The next session of the Human Rights Council begins on Monday. Will it seize the opportunity to stop treating Israel as both an orphan and a pariah? Or will it remain a largely irrelevant, and sometimes damaging, global actor, ignoring the lamentable state of human rights in so many places, while focusing on its traditional punching bag, Israel?
We won’t be waiting long for the answer.