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.
You wouldn't know it from the Human Rights Council -- which ritualistically adopted multiple anti-Israel resolutions last week, yet only lone ones on such scenes of unsurpassed carnage and deprivation as Syria, Iran and North Korea -- but the most elemental human right of Israelis, the right to life, has been denied and threatened in a particularly relentless and vicious way for about half a year now. The council was not even embarrassed to condemn Israel for its possession of, and human rights record on, the strategically vital and essentially tranquil Golan Heights at a time when religious minorities and the U.N.'s own personnel enjoy refuge there from the bloodletting by regime forces and terrorist groups alike across the border in Syria.
In a true manifestation of insult added to injury, and of abdicated political and ethical leadership, apathy in Geneva to Palestinian terrorism comes as little surprise, though, since the United Nations as a whole is all but explicit in its indifference to violence against Israelis -- unless and until Israel responds forcefully, at which point Israel itself is subjected to especially wild opprobrium.
A running compendium by the world body, "UN Response to Acts of Terrorism," lists its reactions to acts of violence against civilians globally -- from France to Lebanon to Mali to Afghanistan to Egypt to Turkey to Belgium and beyond -- and yet manages not to note even a single one of the stabbings, shootings or car rammings that have afflicted innocent Israelis on a near-daily basis over the last six months.
Forget solidarity marches by world leaders, the superimposing of the Israeli flag on social-media profile photos or declarations of "Je suis Jerusalem"; after all, even a fresh target of Islamist terror like Belgium continues to be among those denying Israel any understanding or decency in its voting at the Human Rights Council. Instead, the UN secretary-general recently rationalized Palestinian acts of terror as "human nature" -- and went as far as to respond to the subsequent objections of Israeli leaders by publishing an op-ed castigating them for "lashing out at every well-intentioned critic," among them "Israel's closest friends." When a few weeks ago I accompanied a group of diplomats on a visit to Israel -- one that was illuminating in its revelation of the country as a democratic, pluralistic haven amid upheaval, so humane as to be unassumingly treating wounded arrivals from hostile Syria -- UN officials stationed there did not let reality disrupt their relaying of a well-practiced narrative in which only Palestinians are associated with grievance and only Israelis are saddled with obligations.
For these bureaucrats, Palestinian suffering was worthy of detailing and magnification, while Israeli suffering was minimized or ignored completely. Indeed, with the UN never considering all those Israelis maimed or traumatized in terrorist attacks, the ongoing wave of Palestinian violence, we were told, does not rise to the level of a "political crisis." Meeting the same day with a non-religious Jewish girl and an Orthodox man who had been wounded in horrifying attacks -- by sheer randomness, in different areas that we ourselves had visited in Jerusalem that day, including the vicinity of the UN compound itself -- I found myself growing emotional in decrying the failure of UN data and officialdom to see any "crisis" in an untold number of Israelis whose scars, physical and otherwise, will permanently testify to their neighbors' conviction that their lives are somehow deserving of being brought to a cruel and arbitrary end.
Putting aside cruelty, today's multiplying Palestinian assailants, whose precursors had inaugurated in earnest the era of modern political terrorism, particularly the use of plane hijackings and suicide bombings, have again honed their brutal craft. Following phases dominated by cross-frontier rocket fire, hostage-taking and other tactics, ordinary Palestinians, endlessly incited to violent hatred not only by Hamas but also by the purportedly moderate Fatah, can now harm and terrorize Israelis with little training or resources, and little possibility for a decisive Israeli response. After all, will Israel deny all Palestinians access to steak knives or to automobiles that can then be exploited as weaponry? And whom can Israel effectively confront when any Palestinian youth rifling through a kitchen drawer is a potential perpetrator of warfare? Not least, by anonymously taking cleavers to Israelis one at a time -- without the dramatic footage and gore of ISIS decapitation videos -- Palestinians can broadly victimize Israelis, day after day for months on end, without the world's so much as taking notice, let alone discerning a crisis.
Which is why, if UN officials do actually care about peace in the region or at least about the stated aspirations of mainstream Palestinians, they must finally stop coddling the Palestinians, denying them all sense of responsibility or agency, and insist that they end the crude, ubiquitous incitement against Israel that inevitably results in the deaths of Palestinians.
The UN itself, for that matter, must stop serving as a global purveyor of such incitement.
A senior UN official, explaining in a New York Times essay this month why he was walking away from a long career at the organization, wrote: "If you lock a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again." At the UN, he acknowledged, "too many decisions are driven by political expediency instead of by the values of the United Nations or the facts on the ground." He concluded: "We need a United Nations led by people for whom 'doing the right thing' is normal and expected."
Serial abuse of Israel was not the subject of the former UN official's piece, and -- no surprise, since it is likely the most entrenched and politically untouchable of UN dogmas -- it was nowhere mentioned in it.
However, indifference to and complicity in the deep injustice that is bigotry against Israel are central to the departure of the UN from its intended purposes and from its real potential.
The UN will remain fundamentally corrupt, and most certainly a failure at peacemaking, until it is finally able to treat the deliberate murder of Jews as it does that of others among its constituents.
In an op-ed for The Times of Israel, Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin has returned from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and he can report: It’s business as usual. Agenda Item 7 persists as the only country-specific item, maligning Israel year-in and year-out, while a number of regimes around the world violate their own people’s human rights. While in Geneva, Mariaschin spoke with a number of foreign representatives and diplomats, urging them to say “no” to Item 7.
Click here to read the op-ed on TimesofIsrael.com
It has been business as usual at the U.N. Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva this month.
Here’s why it matters.
Notwithstanding the need for urgent attention to such serial abusers as Syria’s Assad regime, which continues to barrel-bomb its own citizens in the midst of a destructive civil war, and Iran, which most certainly vies for the lead in any number of human rights abuses, including the execution of juvenile offenders, Israel is still singled out for special opprobrium.
If this sounds like a broken record, it is. Each year, all countries up for discussion are lumped together into one agenda item, while Israel is always separated out from the rest for individual scrutiny under Item “7” which applies solely to the Jewish state, the only democracy in the Middle East. Subsumed under that item this year are a basket of separate resolutions, as well as six reports. The resolutions, which make no pretence at being objective, hammer Israel for “the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” settlements, human rights abuses in the Golan Heights and a call for Palestinian self-determination.
The special reports include updates on the infamous Goldstone Commission Report, which was written in the wake of the 2009 Gaza war, and which suggested Israel might be guilty of war crimes. Judge Richard Goldstone, who chaired the group which wrote the report, ultimately backed away from its one-sided findings. In the U.N. system, however, vituperation against Israel has a life of its own, so the report lives on.
What does all of this have to do with the real world in 2016? The Middle East is not only in chaos, it is in meltdown mode in Iraq and Syria. Libya has now become the new ISIS target of opportunity. Iran, soon to be flush with cash from the nuclear deal with the P5+1, sends its Revolutionary Guards to Syria, along with its wholly-owned subsidiary Hezbollah, the terrorist organization that has taken over control of Lebanon, to back the Assad regime. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in this conflict, Christians and Yazidis have been massacred and subject to humiliation, eviction and dispersal, with millions becoming part of the biggest refugee migration in decades.
This situation has received scant attention from a U.N. body “re-formed and reformed” 10 years ago to address real human rights crises. Its 47 members have really done no such thing. It is dominated by countries from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement, and something called the Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries, said to represent 50 percent of the world’s population, whose worldview includes protecting many of those countries who are in the first line of human rights abusers.
This session, as a result of membership rotation, the United States is not on the Council. Nevertheless, it has spoken out strongly against the double standard Israel receives at the hands of the members of the body. Neither is Canada, which has been a staunch defender of Israel over the past decade. The EU countries choose not to participate in the debate on Item 7, though several of its member states, critical of Israel, find a way to do so. The EU could act more forcefully against this on-going diplomatic charade, but it refrains from doing that—another example of how its actions often don’t measure up to the values it claims to uphold.
As for the Palestinians it once again proves that, though largely crowded out of the news because of events in the region, their ability to manipulate the U.N. system continues. Whether it was attaining full membership at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), non-member state status at the General Assembly, or getting its flag flown in front of the U.N. in New York and other U.N. venues (including Geneva), they continue to plug away, not feeling any pressure to return to the negotiating table with Israel. And why should they? The Palestinians feel they have the international community’s blindly supportive wind at their back—even at a time when the Middle East neighborhood in which the Palestinians are based, is imploding.
One European diplomat I met in Geneva, after a spirited discussion about how annual denunciations of Israel only embolden the Palestinians and discourage the Israelis, told me point blank that if they were to say “no’ to Item 7, “the Palestinian door would be closed to us.” My rejoinder was that if the EU—which has often been the Palestinians’ friend in court and which has for years funded the salaries of Palestinian Authority (PA) civil servants—really sought to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, they would spend their time urging the PA to move to the negotiating table, rather than allow this yearly lacerating of Israel to continue.
So as the Middle East burns, Nero—in this case—the Human Rights Council, fiddles. An aversion to doubling down on real abusers of human rights, and a propensity to let the anti-Israel rhetoric flow in Item 7 and its accompanying reports, speaks to the hypocrisy and emptiness of the Council and the system that has produced it.
Living in a time where, from our smart phone screens we can learn, real time, about the abuses of human rights everywhere, a global conscience is AWOL. Each day it stays that way, real opportunities to help those who suffer, pass. Instead, at the Human Rights Council and elsewhere, there is always time to unfairly castigate Israel.
What a terrible waste.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the Executive Vice President at B'nai B'rith International, and has spent nearly all of his professional life working on behalf of Jewish organizations. As the organization's top executive officer, he directs and supervises B'nai B'rith programs, activities and staff in the more than 50 countries where B'nai B'rith is organized. He also serves as director of B'nai B'rith's Center for Human Rights and Public Policy (CHRPP). In that capacity, he presents B'nai B'rith's perspective to a variety of audiences, including Congress and the media, and coordinates the center's programs and policies on issues of concern to the Jewish community. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International director of Latin American affairs since 1984. Before joining B'nai B'rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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