The dynamics at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) slowly started changing in a slightly more positive direction at the recently concluded session. It should be clarified at the beginning of this post, though, that the changes are relatively minor in the broad scheme of things, and—at most—merely the beginning of a wholly necessary (and long-overdue) process to transform the council from an anti-Israel forum to a body seriously concerned about universal human rights.
The shift in the council is due in part to more countries that are friendly to Israel joining the UNHRC as members in recent years, including Australia, Togo, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Australia, it should be pointed out, was the only country to courageously vote against all the anti-Israel resolutions in this session, as they have since they joined the council. The United Kingdom has been threatening for the past few sessions to vote against resolutions falling under Agenda Item 7—the agenda item that singles out Israel for criticism at each council session while all other countries are examined under a different agenda item. This session, the U.K. went through with its threat, followed by another EU member state: Denmark. Denmark’s decision was a bit of a surprise, as the Scandinavian country is not normally seen to be in the staunchly pro-Israel camp within the EU.
The U.K. and Denmark did not vote against a resolution on “ensuring accountability,” only abstaining from the vote when the Palestinians, perhaps sensing that the tide was starting to turn on this particular resolution, moved the resolution to a different agenda item. This resolution endorsed the report of the council’s biased “Commission of Inquiry” into the rioting along the Gaza border last year. The conclusions in the report largely ignored Hamas instrumentalizing the “protests” as a cover for attacks against Israel, despite the fact that Hamas openly bragged that this was exactly what they were doing. The commission also deposited with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) a secret dossier with a list of Israelis that the commission believes could be threatened with prosecution by the International Criminal Court (which also is looking into the justified Israeli response to the violent riots). The resolution passed, but only with 23 votes in favor, meaning that more countries either voted against, abstained or did not vote than voted in favor.
Spain’s vote in favor of this resolution was especially outrageous. It was the only European country to do so. Even Iceland, which I would normally not include in a list of close friends of Israel, criticized the resolution and abstained. On the other hand, Brazil is to be commended for changing its voting pattern under the new administration and voting against both this shameful resolution and an absurd resolution on the Golan Heights.
The voting on the “ensuring accountability” resolution shows the limits of the change at the council, however. The U.K. and Denmark only promised to vote against Item 7 resolutions, and when it was moved to a different item, they abstained (despite the fact that other EU states did vote against it).
Item 7 is perhaps the most glaring example of bigotry in the entire U.N. system, but it is not the only issue. The resolutions, with their instructions to OHCHR to operate against Israel, are a major problem, and merely shifting resolutions to another agenda item means that the UNHRC is still continuing its anti-Israel modus operandi, just under a different guise. If the council were to eliminate Item 7 (which, in and of itself, might be a very difficult task), but keep the overall action the same, the result will not be a greatly improved UNHRC.
Similarly, there were complaints at the council that the number of anti-Israel resolutions was too high and that they need to be streamlined. The excessive number of resolutions and reports on Israel is another glaring deficiency at the council, but simply wrapping all of them into one or two resolutions is not a meaningful change. It’s just a cosmetic change to make it appear that the council is functioning better, when in fact the anti-Semitism at the heart of the matter has not actually changed.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
During the recent U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session, the new American administration announced that they were re-evaluating U.S. participation on the council. As the administration decides on the course of action that the U.S. takes at the council, this is a good time to review the most pressing problems that still need to be addressed if there is going to be a serious reform of the UNHRC.
Agenda “Item 7”
Agenda “Item 7” is perhaps the clearest evidence of the anti-Semitism that is endemic within many parts of the U.N. system. “Item 7” is a permanent agenda item on the UNHRC schedule that is reserved only for the criticism of Israel; all other U.N. member states are examined under the “Item 4” of the agenda. This item ensures that Israel will be brought up for discussion at each and every council regular session in perpetuity. It is indicative of the obsessive singling-out of Israel that is a major defect built into the UNHRC from its inception. It also encompasses many of the other problems, as they are all housed under its umbrella (many of these problems, however, would still exist even without “Item 7”). “Item 7” is also hard to get rid of because it requires approval of the U.N. General Assembly, a body where anti-Israel voting blocs are also entrenched.
When Israel agreed to resume cooperation with the UNHRC and the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), European countries reportedly agreed to stop speaking during “Item 7” in order to point out the illegitimacy of an agenda item singling out one country. Since then, European adherence to this deal has been spotty. The first relatively small step to reform of the council must be the EU more consistently and steadfastly adhering to its commitments to refrain from legitimating “Item 7.”
OHCHR has had a highly strained relationship with Israel over the years, partly due to mandates forced upon OHCHR from the UNHRC (OHCHR acts as UNHRC’s secretariat), but also due to biased statements, press releases and reports from OHCHR itself.
By far the largest issue that will need to soon be addressed with OHCHR will be the creation of an UNHRC-mandated database of companies doing business in Israeli settlements. The UNHRC passed a resolution last March requiring OHCHR to compile a database of companies—likely to be made up of Israeli companies as well as international companies whose products helping bring security to Israeli communities on both sides of the Green Line. The database could then become a blacklist that anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists will draw from to wage campaigns. This discriminatory action must be stopped. OHCHR has sought (and received) approval from the UNHRC to delay implementation of the database, perhaps understanding the fraught nature of the task. But delaying bigotry is still bigotry, and the delay will not be forever. Only the council can reverse this by passing a resolution, which, given the council dynamics, could be a steep climb.
The UNHRC has a number of special rapporteurs that investigate either specific countries or more general human rights themes (such as the right to freedom of religion or belief). The special rapporteur on Israel is unique in that the mandate can go on forever, whereas all other mandates must be renewed every two years. The special rapporteur can also only investigate one side of this conflict situation—Israel, the lone vibrant democracy in the Middle East, but not Palestinian offenses (such as terrorism, incitement, or repression of those under Palestinian Authority or Hamas rule).
Since the conclusions are reached in advance, the council prefers to pick anti-Israel professors to report on an inherently biased mandate. The current office holder, Michael Lynk of Canada, is no exception to this rule. His predecessor, Richard Falk, was the co-author behind an outrageous report of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) that accused Israel of imposing an “apartheid regime” on the Palestinians. That report—an anti-Semitic smear commissioned by a U.N. agency—was rightly taken down by the U.N. Secretary-General and the head of ESCWA resigned. Lynk and Falk are veteran anti-Israel partisans whose reports the council knew would be a reliable attack on Israel.
In the earlier days of the council, Israel was targeted almost exclusively for condemnatory resolutions. In the past few years, the number of other country-specific resolutions has grown, so the imbalance is not as patently ridiculous as before (although many of these country-specific resolutions are not as critical as the anti-Israel resolutions, which never miss a chance to condemn Israel).
Still, at the last session, five anti-Israel resolutions passed with only the U.S. and Togo voting against all of them. Four were on issues relating to the Palestinian-Israel conflict; one was an absurd resolution on the Golan Heights (especially in light of what is happening next door in Syria). For other countries, all issues are rolled into one resolution, but for Israel each issue needs a detailed and harsh resolution with follow-up mechanisms that further clog the council’s and OHCHR’s time.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive; indeed, there are many other problems that contribute to the malaise at the council. Solving the above issues, as tough as they each may be, will not put an end to the anti-Israel hostility at the UNHRC, but they are the most important steps to reforming the UNHRC and OHCHR so that they can finally begin to live up to their promise—to be non-selective, universal human rights bodies.
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