David I. Roytenberg

Reporting on the Special Rapporteurs (Part I)

I started writing today’s article because of some comments by Francesca Albanese. It’s turned out to be much longer than I initially expected and so I am dividing it in two.

For those who may not know, Francesca Albanese is the current incumbent of the office of United Nations Special Rapporteur on the occupied Arab Territories Including Palestine”. This UN Special Rapporteur position was created in 1993 by the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), a body that was abolished in 2006. The UNCHR was abolished in 2006 because it was dominated by countries that were themselves violators of human rights. According to the article linked just above, it had lost credibility with both activists and governments.

Today’s Canadian Zionist Forum article is not about Albanese, but rather about the first five of her predecessors. We will get to the last three, including Albanese, in the second installment. Hope you find what I’ve completed so far to be a full portion. Let me know what you think by in the comments. I promise more on the subject in my next post.

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The special rapporteur position was created in response to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule known as the first intifada. The resolution of the UNCHR creating the position of special rapporteur also called on Israel to withdraw from all territories captured in 1967, including Jerusalem. The mandate of the special rapporteur was crafted so that the appointee is directed to investigate only Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, and is predicated on a requirement that Israel withdraw unconditionally from the territories captured in 1967. In contrast, Israel has maintained that it will withdraw from some of these territories to mutually agreed boundaries as part of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

The first person to hold the position was Rene Felber, who had been president of Switzerland, before taking up the post of special rapporteur from 1993 to 1995. This is a lengthy report that Mr. Felber published after visiting Israel in October of 1994. While he found violations of Palestinian human rights, he was clear that he believed that publishing reports did not address the root cause of the problem, which was violence against Israelis and the consequent imposition of harsh measures in response, as a result of Israeli concerns for security. He reported that he met with Israeli officials and military leaders and expressed appreciation to them for their cooperation

Image: Rene Felber .By Library Am Guisanplatz (de), Collection Rutishauser, CC BY-SA 4.0,
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The second person to hold the post was Hannu Halinen of Findland from 1995 to 1999. In 1998 Mr. Halinen spoke at a press conference during a visit to Israel. The link will take you to the UN web site, where you can read that Mr. Halinen encountered difficulties obtaining cooperation from the Israeli government of the day led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Halinen reported that these difficulties arose because the Israeli government objected to the unbalanced mandate of his position, which allowed him to investigate Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, but not those of the Palestinian Authority. From the article:

The Special Rapporteur explained the mandate was prejudging the outcome of the findings; it was taken for granted that there were violations and that they were committed by Israel. To move ahead and create trust, it was necessary to regard the question in its entirety and look at how to help prevent violations, he added. Asked whether his point was to call for investigations into Palestinian violations of human rights, Mr. Halinen replied that, like all other Rapporteurs, he wished to have a mandate to investigate in the whole area.

When asked to compare conditions in Israeli and Palestinian prisons, Mr. Halinen said that the Palestinian prisons were not covered by his mandate and that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President had indicated that he would not be allowed to visit Palestinian prisons.

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Giorgio Giacomelli, who had previously served as Director General of UNRWA was the third to take on the role of Special Rapporteur. He occupied the post from 1999 to 2001. Visiting Israel and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority just after the violent confrontation between Palestinian demonstrators and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the Temple Mount, Giacomelli produced a report which captures the impact on the Palestinians of the Israeli response to the outbreak of the second intifada.

He noted that he was unable to meet with Israeli authorities who continued to object to the unbalanced nature of his mandate. Prevented by the mandate from looking into atrocities committed by the Palestinians, the special rapporteur was reduced to referring to them in passing in his introductory comments:

While concentrating his attention on the terms of reference contained in the mandate, the Special Rapporteur feels he would be remiss in his obligation as a mechanism of the Commission on Human Rights if he were not to draw the attention of the Commission to the fact that, in the very area covered by the mandate and in areas geographically and substantively peripheral to it, other serious violations are being perpetrated. It would be for the Commission to decide how best to address these matters in the interest of faithfully and comprehensively upholding human rights norms.

Other than this clause, a reader of the report would have no idea that the difficult conditions for Palestinians described at length in the report were a result of Israel’s response to a wave of brutal attacks on Israeli civilians.

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From 2001 to 2008, the job of special rapporteur went to John Dugard of South Africa. Dugard produced reports highly critical of Israel which compared Israel to Apartheid South Africa. When the UNCHR was disbanded in disgrace, Dugard began reporting to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which replaced the UNCHR. Unfortunately, the UNHRC continues to suffer from the same defects that led to the abolition of the earlier human rights body. There is no longer any interest at the UN to try to fix the problem that human rights violators routinely sit on and sometimes dominate the UNHRC.
Image: John Dugard Picture from From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
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When Dugard’s term ended in 2008, the UN Human Rights Council chose an American of Jewish extraction, Richard Falk, as his successor. Falk had previously produced a report co-authored with his predecessor, John Dugard, which suggested that suicide bombings, which had been used to murder Israelis from 2001 onward, might be a valid form of resistance. Falk had also written that it was reasonable to compare Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to the behaviour of the Nazis. The UN had finally found an incumbent who wouldn’t have a problem with the one sided mandate that went with the job.

As a result of Falk’s record, Israel protested his appointment and said that it was clear that he would not be an impartial investigator into questions of Palestinian Human rights. When Falk tried to visit Israel in 2008 he was detained at Ben Gurion airport and deported, resulting in some diplomatic pressure on Israel to allow him in. However, Israel never relented and Falk did his investigating from afar.

Although Israel had withdrawn completely from Gaza in 2005, the UN insisted that Gaza was still occupied and that therefore Falk’s mandate which referred Israeli Human Rights violations in the occupied Palestinian Territories still applied to Gaza. Although Falk asked the council to broaden his mandate to “insulate the Council” from claims that it was not impartial, nothing of the sort ever happened

Image: Richard Falk .By Iran Review –, CC BY 4.0,

In spite of Israel’s objections, Falk served as special rapporteur for six years, from 2008 to 2014, authoring numerous reports that focused entirely on the impact of Israel’s behaviour on the Palestinians and ignored the Palestinian violence that drove Israeli policies. As the focus of the Israel Palestine conflict shifted to Gaza, after Hamas’ seizure of power there, Falk protested the restrictions on the entry of supplies to Gaza imposed in response to Hamas rocket fire on Israel.

Referring to a siege of Gaza, in spite of the fact that humanitarian aid flowed continuously into the Hamas dominated territory, he helped to normalize the one-sided UN mandate as the correct way to look at Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Israeli actions in response to Palestinian violence were examined entirely without the context of that violence, as though Israel were taking the measures it took for no reason at all.

In 2008, Falk called Israeli air strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, “war crimes”. In 2009, an Israeli operation in Gaza was a “war crime of the greatest magnitude”. In 2010 he wrote a report claiming that Israel was practicing “apartheid”. Part of his “evidence” was that Palestinians, unlike Jews don’t have an unrestricted right to come and live in Israel.

This followed a practice, increasingly common as the years went by, of treating policies in Israel which were similar to those in other countries (in this case controlling who gets to immigrate) as evidence of an Israeli crime. This is an example of a double standard which was identified around the same time as a sign that so-called criticism of Israel had crossed the line into antisemitism.

Falk also endorsed BDS and accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” in East Jerusalem. By 2011, Falk was asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to investigate Israel for “colonialism, ethnic cleansing and Apartheid”. In 2012, Falk turned his attention to what he called “disproportionate use of force” in response to attacks on Israel from Gaza, blaming Israel for its alleged unwillingness to negotiate a truce with the Hamas terrorist regime. Falk called for measures against businesses that operated in Israel and the occupied territories. The US Ambassador to the UN chided the UNHRC for its singular focus on Israel. The Canadian ambassador denounced Falk’s 2012 report as “biased and disgraceful”.

In 2013, Falk’s report called for a commission of inquiry and for new measures in international law against “prolonged occupation”. He also turned his ire on “UN Watch” an NGO which monitors misbehaviour by UN officials, accusing them of conducting a smear campaign against him. The report was criticized by the European representative as politicized. The American ambassador to the UN called for Falk’s resignation due to his attack on UN Watch, saying

Falk’s attack on UN Watch threatens the independent voice of civil society at the UN. NGO work is particularly important in the field of human rights. Mr. Falk’s most recent statement – which he dramatically and recklessly included in an official UN document – is characteristic of previous reprehensible comments and actions he has made during his tenure as a special rapporteur. His views and behavior, both official and unofficial, are offensive and provocative and do nothing to advance peace in the Middle East or to further the protection and promotion of human rights. We again call for his resignation.

Falk served out his six year term and left the position, but not public controversy in 2014.

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This is the end of part I of our survey of the sordid history of the UN Special Rapporteur office and its increasingly biased incumbents. As mentioned at the beginning, the plan is to complete this history with a second installment focusing on Francesca Albanese, the current incumbent, who recently told the UNHRC that Israel is guilty of genocide in Gaza. I believe the history in part I is interesting in and of itself, and is also important to understanding the genesis of Albanese’s preoccupation with Israeli wrongdoing and blindness to Hamas provocation. It’s taken many years to get UN officials to the level of extreme bias which has now been normalized.

This article was originally published at Canadian Zionist Forum.

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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