UN rights body reopens amid US threat to withdraw over anti-Israel bias

US widely expected to quit Human Rights Council after the body fails to implement any of the reforms it sought

A general view of the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 26, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland. (AFP Photo/Jean-Guy Python)
A general view of the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 26, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland. (AFP Photo/Jean-Guy Python)

GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — The UN Human Rights Council will kick off a new session Monday under a cloud of growing US criticism and the threat of Washington withdrawing from the body altogether, primarily over its anti-Israel bias.

Longstanding US criticism of the council for its bias against Israel has escalated since UN-skeptic Donald Trump came to power.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave a fiery speech before the Geneva-based council a year ago, demanding deep reforms to fix its “chronic anti-Israel bias.”

She also demanded the body throw out abusive regimes, like Venezuela and Burundi, which hold seats on the rotating 47-seat council.

Despite the tough US rhetoric — which essentially said reform or we are leaving — little has changed.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gestures prior to address a session of United Nations Human Rights Council on June 6, 2017 in Geneva. (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Tired of waiting for reform, Washington a few weeks ago circulated a proposed resolution unilaterally laying out the full makeover it was looking for.

But the US received little support and has not yet formally tabled the resolution, sparking fevered speculation it was about to quit, and fears of the impact that would have.

“If they withdraw, one can expect serious consequences for the council,” Swiss ambassador to the UN in Geneva Valentin Zellweger told reporters this week.

The US draft text called for dramatic changes to the rules governing how the General Assembly in New York elects countries to fill vacant council seats.

It called for making it more difficult to win a seat but easier to kick out countries accused of serious rights violations.

Anti-Israel bias

The main US complaint meanwhile is the council’s treatment of Israel.

Israel is the only country with a dedicated agenda item, known as Item 7, meaning its conduct in the Palestinian territories is discussed at each of the body’s three annual sessions.

A reform process is underway but the council president, Slovenian ambassador Vojislav Suc, told reporters it is aimed at “the rationalization of our work” — not at political shifts like eliminating Item 7.

Israel’s Ambassador Aviva Raz Shechter gestures 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)

The US is not alone in calling for deeper reform of the council, and just six months ago, it looked like it would be possible to reach a compromise the US could agree to.

At a meeting of some 120 countries organized in Geneva last December there was much enthusiasm for a proposal to address each of the council’s agenda items, including Item 7, only once a year.

“The US was very happy” with this compromise, which would have dramatically reduced the amount of scrutiny of Israel, Marc Liman, head of the Universal Rights Group think-tank, told reporters.

But the European Union failed to reach a common position, prompting countries in other regions to jump ship.

“So it collapsed, and the Americans were not happy,” Liman said, explaining that Washington then decided to push through the reforms it wants on its own.

In Geneva, word has it that the Trump administration has already decided to slam the door on the council.

Pandora’s box

In a way, such a move would simply return the council to its original state.

The US refused to join the body when it was created in 2006, at a time when George W. Bush was in the White House and his ambassador to the UN was John Bolton, Trump’s current hawkish and UN-sceptic National Security Advisor.

It was only after Barack Obama came to power that Washington joined the council in 2009.

Ironically, Israel could be the biggest loser if the Trump administration pulls out.

Item 7 was adopted before the US came onboard, and since Washington has taken its seat on the council, the number of resolutions condemning Israel have dropped dramatically.

Louis Charbonneau of Human Rights Watch told AFP the organization was worried that in the US absence, countries like China or Russia could “come along with hostile amendments,” including bids to exclude civil society from the council.

“They could hijack the process, and the US would not be able to stop it,” he said, cautioning that this could create “a sort of Pandora’s box situation.”

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