Multilateral institutions can either be tiresome talking shops or dynamic vehicles of change. The United Nations is a prime example. Although its purpose is undeniably laudable, its record of achievements is dreadful, especially on the issue of human rights.
Ten years ago, just after becoming Secretary-General of the UN, the now retired Ban Ki-moon opened the 4th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) with the following words: “All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.”
Action? Today, the institution remains incapable of either protecting the worst victims of human rights abuses or holding their abusers to account. The list of the former around the world is long, and it continues to grow at an alarming rate. The case of the Palestinians, who have been subjected to the brutal excesses of Israeli military occupation for at least 50 and as many as 69 years is, perhaps, the most disturbing.
What makes their case so gut-wrenching is the fact that Israel and its western backers have left no stone unturned to obstruct, undermine and discredit the work of the HRC. As soon as US President Donald Trump assumed office, for example, he unleashed a barrage of threats aimed at the UN. In late January, a leaked draft executive order revealed that the Trump administration was contemplating a 40 per cent cut in funding to UN agencies, particularly those that grant full membership to the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Palestinian Authority.
It is reasonable to expect the self-styled “leader of the free world” and “the world’s policeman” to do exactly the opposite and seek to uphold the rule of law and respect for human rights. This, however, is unlikely to happen any time soon for the simple reason that the US is distrustful of international institutions, like the HRC, which have the ability to establish tribunals to investigate war crimes and human rights abuses, and so pose a threat to America and Israel.
With regard to the latter, two specific crimes continue to galvanise world public opinion. The first is Israel’s relentless expansion of illegal colony-settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967; the second is the consolidation of an apartheid system within Israel itself. Both issues are expected to be high on the agenda of the HRC in the remaining days of its 34th session.
Of course, there is a threshold beyond which the council will not go. Its resolutions will remain mere words on paper for as long as some members continue to accommodate and promote Israeli policies as emblematic of “the only democracy in the Middle East”, as if democracy cannot be distorted and railroaded into tyranny.
In his latest book On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder reminds us that democracy can decline and fall, and that its collapse in Europe in the 1920s and 30s gave rise to fascism and Nazism. Snyder, you may recall, is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Likewise, the failure and collapse of democracy in Israel has given rise to a system of apartheid rule, to the distinct disadvantage of the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian Arabs. However menacing this development may seem, though, there is still hope that its disastrous consequences can be avoided.
Unlike the professionals, academics, judges and writers who aided the European totalitarian regimes all those years ago, young people today have, for the 13th year running, organised Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) in more than 250 cities and campuses worldwide. Despite government-backed campaigns to silence the students, IAW continues to grow year by year. In Britain, more than 30 university campuses marked the occasion this year. If they can survive 13 years against well-funded and vicious pro-Israel campaigns trying to stop them, we have to be optimistic about their chances of surviving for as long as it takes to end institutional racism and state-sponsored discrimination in Israel and elsewhere.
However, they should not be left alone to shoulder this responsibility. The work involved in promoting IAW would be much easier if people of goodwill from all other walks of life reject the notion that Israel is somehow above the law; that its “exceptionalism” means that it can do what it likes, whenever it likes. No matter how difficult and daunting this may seem, such people must, for the good of humanity, reset the direction of travel of international institutions; the UN would be a good place to begin.
The world body has clearly deviated from its founding principles and is now on a dangerous course. The fact that Ban Ki-moon’s successor, Antonio Guterres, could even consider offering the position of under-secretary-general to Tzipi Livni, an Israeli war crimes suspect, is testimony to this. The so-called compromise offer was made after the Trump administration blocked the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as UN special envoy to Libya.
It was under Livni’s watch as Foreign Minister that Israel attacked the UN-run Al Fakhoura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza on 6 January 2009. More than 40 people, including a number of children, were killed in the shelling. A UN inquiry subsequently confirmed that there was no firing towards Israel from within the school and there were no explosives kept there. According to Livni at the time, “There is no humanitarian crisis in the Strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce.” It was “a good thing,” she claimed, for Israel to be “going wild” against the Palestinians.
Faced with the constant threat of intimidation and blackmail by powerful states, the HRC should learn from the example of the courageous students who run Israel Apartheid Week; despite threats to ruin their careers, they stand tall and declare that apartheid is a crime. The least that the HRC can do in the remaining days of its 34th session is to declare its own anti-apartheid campaign against the Israeli version of institutionalised racism, not just for one week every year, but for every week of every year that the unjust system continues to exist.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.