The Multilateralist

Israel avoids the U.N. Human Rights Council

Israel avoids the U.N. Human Rights Council

Last week, Israel’s representatives failed to show up for the scheduled review of its human rights record by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. Via the Associated Press:

The president of the U.N.’s top rights body, Polish diplomat Remigiusz Henczel, declared Israel a no-show at a meeting in Geneva and then reconvened the 47-nation Human Rights Council to decide what to do.

Israel had asked Henczel in January to postpone the review but did not provide a public explanation.

"This is a rather unique step which has never happened in the past," said German U.N. Ambassador Hanns Heinrich Schumacher.

The scheduled session — part of the relatively new Universal Periodic Review process — has now been delayed until November. The hasty rescheduling was apparently designed to minimize the impression of confrontation and avoid the precedent of a state boycotting its review. But Israel’s move has reignited debate about the Human Rights Council and the value of its work. The New York Times criticized the Israeli approach as shortsighted:

The council hasn’t always been an effective human rights champion. But its record, including naming human rights rapporteurs for Iran and Sudan and supporting gay and lesbian rights, has improved since President Obama, reversing policy of the George W. Bush administration, had the United States join the council in 2009.

Human rights reviews are an important tool for judging all countries by universal standards and nudging them to make positive changes. By opting out, Israel shows not only an unwillingness to undergo the same scrutiny as all other countries, but it deprives itself of an opportunity to defend against abuse charges. The decision could also undermine the entire review process by providing an excuse for states with terrible human rights records — like North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe — to withdraw as well. It certainly will make it harder for Washington to argue for reviews when an ally rejects the process.

By contrast, the Jerusalem Post argues that the Council’s anti-Israel bias makes bypassing the body Israel’s only sensible course:

The council is noxiously anti- Israel. The special rapporteur on the question of Palestine to the UNHRC until 2008, John Dugard, described his mandate as scrutinizing Israeli human rights infractions and not those of the Palestinians. His successor Richard Falk likened Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews during the Holocaust.

Israel has been censured by the UNHRC more than any state and the council has made sure that all its sessions are compelled to focus disproportionate attention on Israel. This has been guaranteed by the adoption of Agenda Item 7 that turns Israel into a permanent subject of debate. No other country has an obligatory agenda item reserved for it…Not showing up was hardly ideal, but better this than more spectacles of the sort staged invariably by the UNHRC.

The competing editorial takes pretty much mirror the official views of the United States and Israel. The week before the scheduled review, U.S. officials urged Israel to take part in the review process and to defend its record. U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe declared "[t]he United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed."

It’s no surprise that Jerusalem and Washington have reached very different conclusions about the worth of the Council’s processes. U.S. officials view the Human Rights Council as a work in progress, a promising (if still flawed) piece of the world’s institutional architecture. They believe there has been significant progress, including on abuses by certain dictatorial states, free speech, gender issues, and gay rights. Obama administration officials point to recent Council action on abuses by Syria, Libya, and Sudan. Indeed, the administration sees the Human Rights Council’s more responsible role as a key benefit of its reengagement with multilateral institutions. U.S. officials believe that in the long term the Council can become an effective instrument for advancing American policies and values.  

Israel’s perspective is understandably quite different. The positive shifts in the Council’s work so impressive to Washington are small consolation given that Israel is still the institution’s favorite target. So long as Israel remains in its crosshairs, in fact, a Human Rights Council viewed as increasingly responsible is more dangerous than a manifestly irresponsible one. Until recently, Israel had support from Washington in deriding the Council as an irredeemable body that welcomes notorious abusers as members. That’s changed now. As Donahoe’s comments suggest, the United States feels invested in the Council and inclined to defend its processes.

For the moment, the delay in Israel’s review has papered over this divide. But there’s no denying that the United States and its top Middle East ally have quite different interests regarding the Human Rights Council.