Israel may follow US in freezing out UN rights body, to some diplomats’ dismay
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Israel may follow US in freezing out UN rights body, to some diplomats’ dismay

Politicians have welcomed the US decision to quit the UN Human Rights Council, but even some critics of the body argue it would have been better to stay engaged and defend Israel

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The US name sign is photographed one day after the United States announced its withdrawal at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the UN headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday. June 20, 2018. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)
The US name sign is photographed one day after the United States announced its withdrawal at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the UN headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday. June 20, 2018. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Last October, the US administration announced it was quitting UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, citing, among other things, its notorious anti-Israel bias.

Jerusalem welcomed the move, and announced that it would follow suit.

“This is a courageous and ethical decision because UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd and instead of preserving history, distorts it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time.

This week, the US administration announced it was withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, citing, among other things, its notorious anti-Israel bias.

Jerusalem welcomed the move, with Netanyahu once again hailing it as “courageous,” calling the council a “biased, hostile, anti-Israel organization that has betrayed its mission of protecting human rights.”

Since Israel is not a member of the 47-nation UNHRC, it cannot follow suit this time. But Israeli sources maintained Wednesday that it was possible and even likely that Netanyahu would soon announce that Israel was ceasing all contacts with the council.

The US nameplate is photographed one day after the United States announced its withdrawal at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the UN headquarters in Geneva on June 20, 2018. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

“How can we stay when US slammed the door on our account?” a former senior diplomat told The Times of Israel, arguing that “once the US has left the council because of us, we have no choice but to cut ties.”

Still, so far, no decision on severing ties with the council has been made, Israeli officials told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Options for measures Israel could possibly take against the council are limited, but in the past it has found ways to express its displeasure with the Geneva-based body.

In 2012 Israel announced it was cutting all ties with the UNHRC after member states voted for the establishment of a fact-finding mission into Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank. It restored contact less than a year later.

Earlier this year, the council voted for a probe into Israel’s recent actions to fend off protests at the Gaza border, which was vehemently denounced by Israeli politicians.

As of Wednesday, Israel was maintaining its status as an observer to the council. Ambassador Aviva Raz Shechter, Israel’s envoy to UN institutions in Geneva, welcomed the US administration’s step as a “strong message about the urgent need for reform.”

On Tuesday, a few hours before US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Washington’s withdrawal from the council, Raz Shechter had still participated in a discussion about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ annual report, in which she slammed the council’s alleged anti-Israel bias.

“We know that when it comes to Israel the council is not interested in the facts,” she said.

However, just two months ago Raz Shechter assumed a position representing the Western States and Others Group at the so-called Consultative Group, a body nominating and appointing special mandate holders.

What we need is for the US to appoint someone like Nikki Haley to take the floor and speak truth to power

She is set to serve in this important position until April 2019.

Already on Wednesday, the seat of the US envoy to the council sat empty, as the body convened to discuss summary executions, freedom of expression, the rights of migrants, violence against women and other issues.

The US “resigned its seat effective immediately,” a US government official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “We will not participate in Human Rights Council sessions going forward, including in the session currently underway.”

US Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley speaks at the US Department of State in Washington DC on June 19, 2018. (AFP Photo/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

It was the first time in the council’s history that a member state quit voluntarily. (Libya was kicked out seven years ago.) The US, whose term was to expire at the end of 2019, will now have to be replaced by another state from the West European and Others Group. Member states are elected by the UN General Assembly; it is currently unclear when and how a replacement for the US will be selected, or whether formally the US will remain an observer until December 31, 2019.

Better to have a voice

Many Israeli politicians rejoiced at Tuesday’s announcement of the US withdrawal from what centrist MK Yair Lapid dubbed the “Council for Terrorists’ Rights.” Professional diplomats in Jerusalem, however, pointed out the symbolic move could harm Israel in the long run.

Israel’s Ambassador Aviva Raz Shechter during a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 18, 2018, which voted for an investigation into Gaza border violence. (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Foreign Ministry officials told Channel 10 that America’s absence would make it much more difficult to block anti-Israel initiatives at the council.

In the past, they argued, the US, while alone in defending Israel, could at least exert some influence, for example with regards to the election of a new high commissioner for human rights or working to block the publication of a blacklist of Israeli companies operating in the West Bank.

Just as Israeli diplomats weren’t very happy about the US and Israel quitting UNESCO — despite their anger over many anti-Israel resolutions passed there — they would not necessarily rejoice over Netanyahu cutting ties with the Human Rights Council, either, Israeli sources said Wednesday.

The argument is the same: It is not the UN framework that is responsible for anti-Israel resolutions but the member states. The sources specified countries such as Venezuela and Qatar, which will continue to guarantee that Israel gets no fair shake, with the US or without.

Inherently biased organizations should not be legitimized by US membership, proponents of the US quitting UNESCO and the Human Rights Council say.

But as long as the rest of the civilized world clings to these organizations — even if it demands reforms, as the UK did — they will not only continue to exist but also enjoy a great deal of international legitimacy, even without the US administration.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses the 38th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on June 18, 2018 in Geneva. (AFP/Alain Grosclaude)

If anything, unilateral withdrawals leave the playing field to your enemies and deprive you of the opportunity to influence from within, argued UN Watch’s Hillel Neuer, himself a perennial critic of the Human Rights Council.

“Sadly, we know that the US absence won’t stop the council from creating prejudiced commissions of inquiry, whose reports get sent to The Hague, or from adopting biased resolutions that are quoted worldwide, affecting the hearts and minds of millions worldwide,” he told The Times of Israel.

Why not send famed law professor and pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz to be Washington’s new ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Neuer suggested.

“Because this body is not going away — and we know that from the US withdrawal from 2006 to 2009 — what we need is for the US to appoint someone like Nikki Haley to take the floor and speak truth to power.”

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