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UN Watch calls on SA judge to resign due to bias in Israel probe



If the United Nations (UN) is going to hold an inquiry into the clashes between Israel and Hamas last May, surely the person heading the inquiry should be impartial?

This is the point behind a 30-page complaint released by UN Watch this week, which called on retired South African jurist Navi Pillay to resign from heading up a new UN inquiry into the conflict.

According to the complaint submitted to the UN on 14 February 2022 by UN Watch, Pillay, a retired South African judge and former UN human rights chief, violated UN rules by failing to disclose numerous prior statements that directly prejudge the matters before the inquiry.

“Never throughout her UN tenure did Pillay use such dismissive language regarding any other country, not even against serial abusers such as China, Russia, Iran, Syria, or North Korea,” says Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch and an international human rights lawyer.

“Her narrative of who is the villain is set in stone. Ms Pillay has long ago made up her mind. Asking Navi Pillay to head an inquiry examining Israel is like asking a vegetarian to review a steakhouse. When it comes to Israel, as our legal brief demonstrates, Pillay is the complete opposite of impartial.”

UN Watch is an independent nongovernmental organisation that monitors the UN for bias and impartiality.

“Many of the utterances in question occurred mere weeks before she was appointed by the UN, leaving little room to imagine how Pillay could envisage the issues any differently so soon afterwards,” says Neuer. “It’s astonishing that the United Nations appointed an individual as the supposedly impartial chair of an inquiry immediately after she declared one of the parties guilty in the very controversies that are at issue in the investigation.

“By heading this inquiry in spite of having repeatedly declared Israel ‘guilty’, Pillay embodies the injustice of the UN and its Human Rights Council when it comes to the selective treatment of the Jewish state,” he says.

In June 2020, Pillay signed a petition, organised by the South African Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions coalition, titled “Sanction Apartheid Israel!”

In June 2021, she signed a joint letter to United States President Joe Biden against Israel’s “domination and oppression of the Palestinian people”. She wrote that the April 2021 clashes at Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem – also to be examined by the inquiry – constituted “aggressive actions by Israeli forces” against “peaceful protesters and worshippers”, which amounted to “forced dispossession of Palestinians”, the “latest evidence of a separate and unequal governing system”.

In a May 2021 lecture, Pillay described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “inhuman”. She compared Israel to apartheid South Africa, and defended the systematic singling-out of Israel under a targeted agenda item at the UN Human Rights Council.

Her anti-Israel bias can be traced even further back. In 2009, Pillay headed the UN’s follow-up to the 2001 Durban conference on racism, an event tainted by unprecedented displays of antisemitism. When Jewish community activists around the world sounded the alarm, Pillay repeatedly demonised them at the UN and in the media as “lobby groups” that were “focused on single issues”.

In May 2010, while serving as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Pillay declared that “the Israeli government treats international law with perpetual disdain”.

In November 2017, she stated, “Apartheid is now being declared a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute, and it means the enforced segregation of people on racial lines, and that is what is happening in Israel.”

Neuer says that in contrast to former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and her predecessor, High Commissioner Louise Arbour, who both criticised the UN Human Rights Commission for its notorious agenda item targeting Israel, Pillay repeatedly defended this discrimination.

“The legal test is the appearance of bias, and there’s no doubt that Pillay fails the test. We’re therefore calling on her to do the right thing and resign immediately. In the event that she refuses to do so, we request that Federico Villegas, the president of the Human Rights Council, remove her,” says Neuer. “We’re calling on Ms Pillay to respect the impartiality obligations set forth in the UN Declaration on Fact-Finding, the impartiality guidelines published by her former office, and her own solemn undertaking that she recently gave on becoming chair of the inquiry, to be impartial.

“If the UN and its Human Rights Council are to live up to their founding principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity, then Navi Pillay cannot be a member, much less the chair, of this commission of inquiry,” Neuer says.

He notes that the inquiry itself was formed on questionable grounds. “The commission of inquiry was created at a 27 May 2021 session initiated by the Palestinians together with Pakistan on behalf of the Islamic states. No Western democracy voted for the inquiry. The report of the three-person probe is to be presented in June 2022 in Geneva. The UN has budgeted a record amount of several million dollars for the inquiry.”

It’s not only UN Watch that’s calling out the inquiry. In a recent local webinar titled “The UN’s War on Israel”, Anne Bayefsky, the president of Human Rights Voices, said that the inquiry was “operationalised in a way which is dedicated to the destruction of a Jewish state through lethal politics”. Bayefsky has been keeping tabs on the UN for almost four decades. She also said Pillay was “notorious for her anti-Israel bias”.

Bayefsky said this inquiry was “permanently based at the office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, composed to a great extent by lawyers who have essentially created an in-house law firm to victimise, delegitimise, and criminalise Israel and Israelis when they act in self-defence”.

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “The UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry against Israel, chaired by retired South African judge Navi Pillay, is another unjust attempt by an international body to find Israel guilty of a crime and then fish for reasons to support the verdict.

“In rational circumstances, a chair of a serious inquiry should be beyond reproach and impartial,” Polovin says. “Pillay, on the other hand, is well known for her ongoing and extreme anti-Israel rhetoric and meetings with Hamas. She’s a highly compromised individual whose obvious bias should render her unfit for any objective inquiry into Israel. The outcome of such an inquiry will thus have zero credibility. She should clearly resign – but then again, she was most likely chosen to lead this inquiry because of – not in spite of – her partiality against the Jewish state.”

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