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Israel rejoining the UNHCR is meaningless if it isn't held accountable for human rights abuses

January 24, 2014 at 3:17 am

After 18 months, Israel is to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Last March, it became the first country to sever all ties with the international body, after plans for an investigation into West Bank settlements were announced. Israel, which has long alleged that the UN has an anti-Israel bias, said that the only purpose of the investigation was “to satisfy the Palestinians’ whims and to harm future chances to reach an agreement through peaceful means”.

It rejoins with some important new conditions. Firstly, Israel will join the permanent group of western states within the UNHRC. This group includes the countries of western Europe, Turkey, Canada, America, and New Zealand. Previously, Israel was not part of any regional group, which left it diplomatically isolated. The second condition is that the states of the European Union boycott discussions held under “agenda item 7”. This agenda item states that the UNHRC must discuss Israel’s human rights abuses every time the council convenes. Israel argues that this is unfair, since it is the only nation in the world subject to a specific rule of this type. Advocates of item 7 argue that the long-standing nature of the Israeli occupation justifies it. The EU had already expressed discomfort about these discussions, saying in March it would like to “avoid a proliferation of reports and mechanisms” under item 7, so the condition is not much of a leap.

The EU has agreed to boycott item 7 meetings at the next two UNHRC meetings, and has said it will only participate in these discussions in the future if there is complete consensus on the issues at stake from every EU member state. Israel’s Maariv newspaper, reporting the news, notes that this is practically impossible, and that western representation has essentially been stripped from the meetings.

Israel’s criticism of the UN tends to follow the line that the focus on Israel is disproportionate given the scale and range of different human rights’ abuses around the world. Defending the country’s record to the UNHRC in October, Israel’s deputy attorney general Shai Nitzan said: “Israel has been regularly subject to significant, and often politically motivated, scrutiny over the years, disproportional to the worldwide human rights situation.” Other politicians and commentators have pointed at conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere which gain less attention than the occupied territories in Palestine.

Yet this is a weak line of argument; simply because there is suffering around the world, it does not follow that abuses in Israel and Palestine should go unremarked upon. Even in arguing that the UN is unfairly biased against Israel, the argument made by Israeli politicians tends to be that there is more discussion of its abuses, rather than that those abuses do not exist (“Our record is before you. It is not a perfect record,” Israeli ambassador to the UN Eviator Manor said to UNHRC).

While it is true that many resolutions have been issued against Israel, the converse argument is that no action is ever taken over these violations of international law. Debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict is always polarised and this area is no different. Israel and its supporters maintain that the country is the victim of an unfair bias; its critics argue that it is in fact the beneficiary of unfair exceptionalism. The 2009 Goldstone Report into the 2008 siege of Gaza – commissioned by the UNHRC – found evidence of war crimes. Israel did not accept the charge and no action was taken. Settlements in the West Bank have repeatedly been found to be in violation of international law. Politicians across the world – including Israel’s allies, the US and Britain – make noises about settlement activity, but no-one with influence ever applies real pressure on this issue.

Israel rejoining the UNHRC is a positive step in terms of the UN’s ability to police worldwide human rights. The boycott threatened to undermine the whole ethos of the council which – ironically, given the allegation of bias against Israel – prizes equality. Its Universal Periodic Review was developed in response to concerns from Israel and other countries about UN objectivity, and depends upon equal participation from all 193 member countries. Had Israel continued to abstain, it could have opened the door for countries like Syria and North Korea to stay away. Maariv suggests that this was one of the key motivations for the UNHRC bringing Israel back into the fold.

Yet it is a small positive step that is irrelevant without other, bigger steps taken in tandem. Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said that more was needed: “Israel should now recognise that its human rights obligations apply to occupied Palestinian territory, start working with the UN’s human rights team in the West Bank, and stop blocking visits from UN rights experts.” Without substantive action on these areas – which, based on past example and the statements of Israeli officials, looks highly unlikely – membership of the UNHRC is neither here nor there.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.