António Guterres, the new secretary-general of the United Nations, did not mince words when he addressed the opening session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva a few weeks ago, for the first in his capacity as UN chief:
“Disregard for human rights is a disease, and it is a disease that is spreading – north, south, east and west. The Human Rights Council must be part of the cure,” Guterres told the 47 members of the body, among them Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan. He added that “the integrity and credibility of this Council will only be enhanced by proceeding in a manner that avoids unbalanced treatment of member states.”
Balance, or rather, bias against one UN member state has been the crux of the Council, and of its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission. The latter was abolished in 2005 because it had essentially become a tool of dictators, a tool to bash Israel’s allegedly unfair treatment of the Palestinians, and more.
As Guterres rightly noted in his address, given the centrality of human rights for the United Nations, the Council’s decisions can bring the entire UN into disrepute if they are seen as biased or unfair. And by extension, the UN loses its ability to promote and enforce human rights.
However, far from learning from the flaws of its predecessor body, the Human Rights Council, set up in 2006, is still marred by a blatant anti-Israel bias.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was spot on last week when he pointed out that, “While it may be the only such organization devoted to human rights, the Human Rights Council requires considerable reform in order for us to continue to participate.”
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was equally clear, and said that because of its anti-Israel bias “the United States will not participate” in the Council’s discussions “other than to vote against the outrageous, one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions that so diminish what the Human Rights Council should be.” Haley also said the constant focus on Israel allowed other nations to distract from their own, often-egregious human rights records.
As the UK’s permanent representative to the UN Julian Braithwaite poignantly pointed out at the UNHRC last week, “Israel is a population of eight million in a world of seven billion. Yet since its establishment in 2006, of the 135 country-specific resolutions adopted by the Council, 68 were targeted against Israel.”
Israel is the only country permanently on the Human Rights Council’s agenda (Item 7).
In light of the fact that there are 60 million people world-wide who are fleeing war, injustice and persecution, and hundreds of millions who suffer from regimes that violate human rights on a daily basis, that is indeed shameful. The United States rightly boycotted last week’s Council session on Item 7 and should be commended for it.
The United Kingdom also put the Council on notice, and its representative said that if the body’s anti-Israel bias is not addressed, they would vote ‘no’ on all resolutions concerning Israel and the occupied territories in the future.
And Britain pointed to another flaw: Neither “terrorism” nor “incitement” were a focus of last week’s Council discussions and resolutions. This is not acceptable.
However, the broader question is: Is it worth bothering with the Human Rights Council?
On balance, I believe it is – for two reasons. One, there is no other comparable supranational human rights body, and throwing in the towel would do irreparable harm to the UN human rights agenda, as it would hand a victory to dictators and human rights violators. Two, reform at the United Nations may come slow, but it can happen. Examples for that are the repeal of the 1975 resolution ‘Zionism=Racism’ in 1991, or the abolition of the UN Human Rights Commission in 2005 and the establishment of the Council in 2006.
We must all try to engage with the Council and work hand in hand with those willing to listen, to overcome the Council’s unhealthy obsession with Israel. The fact that countries like the United States and Britain, or African members such as Togo, have become more vociferous on this issue is also due to a growing awareness about the Council’s anti-Israel bias.
The World Jewish Congress is playing a role in this effort to advocate in Geneva.
We regularly dispatch delegations of our flagship Jewish Diplomatic Corps program to Geneva to give statements to the Council on different subjects. We constantly engage with UN officials and member state representatives to try and effect piecemeal change. It is a cumbersome effort, but I believe it will ultimately prove successful.
One thing is clear: Each country – including Israel and other Western nations – must deal with outside criticism of its human rights situation, provided such criticism is based on universally agreed standards and benchmarks. In this respect, the Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a useful tool. However, if this UN body continues to single out and demonize Israel and apply different standards to different countries, it will not gain any credibility.