Israel severs ties with UN Human Rights Council: what might the implications be?

The Israeli foreign ministry announced on 26 March 2012 that it has cut all contact with the UN Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Office and the Human Rights Treaty Bodies. Israel has refused to cooperate with a fact-finding mission to investigate the settlement issue and whether the rights of Palestinians are being abused.

A resolution authorising the inquiry into the impact of settlements on Palestinian rights was adopted on 22 March 2012 by the 47-member council with 36 votes in favour and 10 abstentions. Only the US voted against it.The aim of the fact-finding mission is to “investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”. The Human Rights Council called on Israel not to obstruct the process of investigation and to cooperate fully with the mission.

Four days after the resolution was adopted the Israeli government announced immediate termination of all contact with the Human Rights Council and directly criticised the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said the “sole purpose” of the inquiry was “to satisfy the Palestinians’ whims and to harm future chances to reach an agreement through peaceful means.”

This situation highlights several important issues about the strengths and weakness of the UN Human Rights Council.

Firstly, we must ask the question, what will be the consequences of Israel refusing to cooperate with the inquiry and ignoring international criticism?

No one would argue the Human Rights Council is perfect, yet it remains the world’s leading institution for human rights, and the only formal machinery for debating human rights violations at the global level. The council constitutes a vast improvement over the previous commission on human rights and is an important space for civil society to be part of discussions on human rights issues. To date, all states are cooperating with the council and have participated in the Universal Periodic Review process. This action by Israel could lead to other states following suit by deciding the council’s decisions are inconvenient and withdrawing.

The fact-finding mission will go ahead despite lack of cooperation from the Israeli government. The committee conducting the inquiry will be announced soon, and in order to demonstrate credibility it must be recognised as completely independent, non-partisan and without a political agenda.

It most be hoped the inquiry will produce a reliable report which will help inform the international community about how to address the issue of settlements. Previous experiences have shown that government cooperation makes an inquiry more effective and is certainly advantageous, but it is not essential. The example of the Goldstone Report from the fact-finding mission on the war in Gaza from 2008 to 2009 shows us that Israel’s previous refusal to engage with a mission did not prevent the publication of a valuable report.

Secondly, the Israeli government frequently accuse the Human Rights Council of a biased and disproportionate focus on Israel to the exclusion of other major human rights issues. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson have also criticised the council for acting according to political considerations as opposed to human rights. Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki Moon, the council’s president Doru Costea, the European Union, Canada and the United States have all in the past accused the council of focussing disproportionately on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

However, while the council may be biased, this should not detract from a focus on the human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel should not be looking at other states for the lowest common denominator, but rather rising above that level and complying fully with international law. The fact that other states are committing human rights abuses is no way to justify acts that are against justice and freedoms. The Israeli government should not be pointing the finger at others in response to criticism of their human rights record.

Thirdly, international attention and criticism is just one element of achieving policy change on a national level. It is essential that national civil society organisations are supported and their voices are heard within Israel. Important decisions have been made at the Israel Supreme Court relating to settlement and access to services which have made a significant impact on government policy. We can expect an independent report in the coming months that will recognise settlements as a human rights issue and determine how the international community should respond.

Adele Poskitt, Civil Society Watch Coordinator

Adele Poskitt

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