What is the impact of the US pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council?

  • Paula
This week, the United States quit the United Nation’s primary human rights body, the Human Rights Council (HRC). It is the Trump administration’s latest snub of the international community, and the first time since the HRC was established 12 years ago that a serving member has dropped out voluntarily.
by PAULA SLIER | Jun 21, 2018

It is a move that is a long time coming. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, has on more than one occasion criticised the HRC for being “grossly biased against Israel”. Washington, it seems, finally had enough.

Israel is the only country in the world whose rights record comes up for discussion at every council session, held every three months, under “Item 7” on the agenda.

The council hears more reports on Israel than Syria, Iran, and North Korea combined. During its session in March this year, it passed five resolutions against Israel, compared with two against Syria, and one against North Korea and Iran respectively.

Not one was passed against China, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe, or Turkey, countries known to carry out severe human rights violations against their populations.

Tasked with reviewing the human rights record of the 193 UN member states, some of the worst violators of human rights sit on the HRC. Among them are Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Congo, and Cuba.

Israel is not a member, and has repeatedly criticised the body as being an anti-Israel platform. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested changing its name to “The Council for Resolutions Against the Only Democracy in the Middle East”.

Following the recent spate of violence on the Gaza-Israel border, the council passed a resolution calling for a commission of inquiry to investigate “individual criminals” by Israeli soldiers and commanders.

Israel has boycotted previous such inquiries, like the Schabas Commission that investigated Operation Protective Edge (2014) and the Goldstone Commission that investigated Operation Cast Lead (2009) by denying investigators entry into Israel.

Although such commissions have no practical ramifications on the ground, they damage Israel’s diplomatic standing and reputation. More importantly, they could serve as the basis for lawsuits against Israeli army officers and officials at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

For four years, ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has been weighing the question of whether or not to formally open a war-crimes investigation into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is still undecided. In light of the recent Gaza violence, she has said that should she decide to go ahead with one, any new alleged crimes will be included. These would cover current clashes to anything that happens in the future.

It’s a double-edged sword for the Palestinians. On the one hand, they recently requested the ICC to expedite a fuller investigation into Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, it could also lead to charges being brought against Palestinians, including rocket assaults on Israeli civilians.

Either way, such investigations could take years, and there’s no guarantee at this stage that the ICC will even conduct them.

Israel is not a signatory to the ICC, but theoretically, it is possible that Israeli citizens or institutions could be prosecuted for alleged crimes on Palestinian land.

The court was established in 2002 as a “last resort” to step in when a state is unwilling or unable to investigate crimes on its territory. Since then, Israel has opposed its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are 123 countries party to the ICC, including the Palestinian Authority (PA). In 2015, they all signed the Rome Statute. Palestinians are allowed to file petitions from the Gaza war of 2014 onwards, in addition to calling for investigations into Israeli settlements and the indictment of Israeli officials.

Jerusalem argues that Palestinian requests to the ICC hold no legal validity as Israel is not a member and the PA is not a state.

What’s more, Israel sees the ICC as anti-Israel. In fact, Israel sees the United Nations as an anti-Israel structure, complaining that it singles out the Jewish State for disproportionate criticism.

The Israeli position has always been that a Palestinian state cannot be achieved by UN resolutions alone. It believes that direct negotiations between the sides is needed if any lasting peace is to be achieved.

This is in stark contrast to the global diplomatic strategy currently being employed by Palestinians, who are trying to join as many UN agencies as possible. This is not as a means to revive the peace process, but rather to bypass it.

A full pull out by the US from the HRC is no doubt a victory for Israel. However, it does raise the question of who is left to defend the country after her biggest and most powerful supporter is no longer there.

Many in Israel don’t care, arguing that the HRC is ineffective and biased. As for the HRC itself, it is now left without one of its traditional defenders of human rights. This has a direct impact on countries like China who, while flexing their diplomatic muscles, are simultaneously cracking down on human rights at home.

On several occasions, the US has been the main country willing to stand up to Beijing. The US has already withdrawn from the UN cultural and educational agency, UNESCO, of which Israel is also no longer a member.

In 1945, the UN was established to prevent another global conflict involving world powers. Until now it has achieved this, but it has proven to be ineffective when it comes to regional conflicts and proxy wars.

From 1947, when it passed a resolution partitioning Mandatory Palestine and paving the way for the creation of Israel, it lacked buy-in from the Arab world. Today it lacks buy-in from Israel, causing it to fail repeatedly on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and Chief Executive of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.



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