On September 1, Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein will start his term as the United Nation’s human rights chief, being the first Arab to hold that influential position. Israel always had an exceedingly tense relationship with the UN’s human rights apparatus, and some pro-Israel advocates have railed against al-Hussein’s appointment, pointing to critical remarks about Israel he made in the past.
Is Jerusalem concerned that under the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights — a scion of an Arab dynasty — the body will turn even more hostile toward Israel?
The Foreign Ministry has resolutely refused to comment on al-Hussein ’s appointment. Diplomats there are likely worried that praising him publicly would be counterproductive. Accolades from the Israeli government would certainly increase pressure on him from Arab member states to be tough on Israel, a scenario Jerusalem seeks to avoid.
Yet Israel is actually quietly pleased about al-Hussein replacing Navi Pillay, believing he was the best choice of all candidates under consideration for the position. The Amman-born diplomat is thought to be the most reasonable and approachable human rights commissioner Israel could have hoped for. Indeed, in 2006, Israel’s ambassador to the UN hailed al-Hussein as a “ray of light” in the region that he hoped “would shine more frequently in the future.”
Unaware of Jerusalem’s unspoken appreciation for al-Hussein, some pro-Israel advocates criticized his appointment for his positions on Israeli policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some accused him of equating Palestinian suicide bombings with Israel’s “horrific” actions toward the Palestinians.
Human rights lawyer and pro-Israel advocate Anne Bayefsky, for instance, suggested al-Hussein is likely to abuse his position to agitate against Israel. “So how likely is it that a High Commissioner for Human Rights who comes from a country that is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — which has hijacked the UN Human Rights Council to serve as its personal Israel-bashing tool — will confront his nation’s allies and refuse to become part of the problem?” she told the Washington Free Beacon earlier this month. “The answer is, as the British would say, not bloody likely.”
Speaking at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) about Israel’s security barrier, al-Hussein said in 2004 that “suicide bombings have indeed been nothing less than horrific.” He then added that “those events do not stand by themselves. Israel’s argument, centered as it is on the sporadic suicide bombings of the last three years in particular, must be weighed against almost four decades of Israel dominating and, by virtue of its occupation, degrading, an entire civilian population; often unleashing practices, which have been no less horrific, resulting in a huge number of innocent Palestinian deaths and casualties.”
Al-Hussein made this statement in his role as Jordan’s representative to the ICJ, as the court was considering the security barrier’s legality. “The case was a farcical ‘legal’ exercise that answered a ‘question’ posed by the General Assembly,” Bayefsky said. “The Assembly had already decided the illegality of ‘the Wall’ and gave the court the information to ‘prove’ the foregone conclusion.”
Regarding al-Hussein’s suggestion that Israeli practices were “no less horrific” than terror attacks, Bayefsky said, “exactly the orientation that will be encouraged and welcomed by the UN’s ‘human rights’ establishment.”
However, two years after his ICJ speech, in 2006, al-Hussein drew praise from pro-Israel human rights advocates, and even from a top Israeli diplomat, for a statement he made in a Emergency Special Session at the UN General Assembly about the barrier. At the time Jordan’s ambassador to the UN, he reiterated Amman’s opposition to the barrier and condemned the “occupation,” but also criticized Holocaust denial and called on delegates to reflect on the harm Arabs cause Israeli civilians.
“He asked the Assembly to consider the wrongs being done by Israel to Palestinian people and other Arab populations — its enforced occupation now stretching on some 40 years now — as well as the wrongs being done by Arab groups to civilians in Israel,” according to an official UN report on the session. “He also expressed concern that many in the Arab world and beyond continued to deny or downplay the Holocaust, an event of immense pain that had caused so much suffering to the Jewish people, Roma and others.”
The Jordanian prince concluded his speech by saying that peace would only come “when justice eclipsed political expediency for all the people of the region” — a statement echoing Israel’s core message to the UN for decades, observers said at the time.
Speaking right after al-Hussein, Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Dan Gillerman, praised his Jordanian colleague for his statement. Gillerman said “it was not often that an Israeli was in a position to pay tribute to an Arab but the Prince was a voice of reason that drew forth an acknowledgement,” according to the UN report. “The Prince was a ray of light on matters in the region, one that hopefully would shine more frequently in the future.”
UN Watch, a pro-Israel human rights organization based in Geneva, also applauded the Jordanian diplomat’s words. “The UN desperately needs more courageous voices to join Prince Zeid. Only with such voices will UN calls for Middle East peace cease to ring hollow and begin contributing to a constructive, just resolution to the conflict,” the group stated.
(Asked this week about al-Hussein’s appointment as UN high commissioner for human rights, the group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer, said he had no information to offer on this topic, presumably for the same reason the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment.)
While al-Hussein received much praise for his 2006 speech, he also expressed conciliatory ideas in more recent statements. In a 2011 address to the UN Security Council, he suggested the Arab world try to better understand Israelis’ emotions and positions.
“The Israelis will occasionally say to us: Resolving the conflict is less a matter of law than psychology, and given the rhythms and the very real traumas of Jewish historical experience, they are cautious of placing their trust in anybody, let alone, they say, in us, the Arabs,” al-Hussein said. “And perhaps we must concede: we could have done more to better understand this point, done more to develop greater trust by, inter alia, better explaining the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative to the Israeli public.”
While the prince reiterated Jordan’s “deep opposition” and “strong condemnation” to Israeli settlement building, he asserted that this stance “is not founded on some form of primordial enmity or bigotry toward the Jewish people.”
In about two months from now, when al-Hussein officially assumes the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, he will oversee a staff of about 1,100. Headquartered in Geneva, his office will have branches in 65 countries around the world.
Al-Hussein, who has a PhD from Cambridge University, has twice been Jordanian ambassador at the UN and is also the Hashemite kingdom’s former ambassador to the US. He is steeped in peacekeeping and international justice, and played a central role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court. For more than two years, he chaired complex negotiations on the elements of individual offenses under the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Currently, he represents Jordan on the UN Security Council, where Amman has a two-year term.
Israel’s relations with the UN Human Rights Council, and with outgoing High Commissioner Pillay, have long been tense. In March 2012, Jerusalem cut off all relations with the body after it announced the establishment of a fact-finding mission into Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a decision that was condemned by the government. A few months later, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem slammed Pillay for failing to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.
In the winter of 2013, Israel rejoined the UNHRC after Western member states promised to admit the country into the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), which significantly increases Jerusalem’s ability to advance its interests at the body. In addition, the WEOG states agreed not to participate in discussions over the council’s notorious Agenda item 7 (“the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”) for two years.
Since 2007, Israel has been the only country whose alleged human rights abuses are discussed in the framework of a single permanent item on the council’s agenda.
AFP contributed to this report.