Israel says Turk should focus on violations in Iran, Syria

UN rights chief urges ‘pause’ to Israeli judicial overhaul; PM pans ‘absurd’ remarks

High Commissioner for Human Rights warns proposals will undermine judiciary’s ability to act ‘as an effective institutional check on executive and legislative power’

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk at a news conference in Khartoum, Sudan, November 16, 2022. (Marwan Ali/AP)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk at a news conference in Khartoum, Sudan, November 16, 2022. (Marwan Ali/AP)

GENEVA, Switzerland — The United Nations on Tuesday urged the Israeli government to pause its judicial overhaul process, saying it risked weakening human rights protections by drastically undermining the judiciary’s ability to protect individual rights.

The government took a step early Tuesday toward approving controversial reforms that would boost the powers of politicians over the courts, despite weeks of mass protests against legislation critics see as a threat to democracy.

UN rights chief Volker Turk said that the proposed changes, taken together, would pose serious risks to the effectiveness of the judiciary in defending the rule of law, human rights and judicial independence.

The proposed changes “would drastically undermine the ability of the judiciary to vindicate individual rights and to uphold the rule of law as an effective institutional check on executive and legislative power,” Turk said in a statement.

“Experience in Israel, and around the world, has shown the enduring value of a judiciary that can independently hold the other branches of government to the fundamental legal standards of a society set out in its basic laws.”

The legislation would give more weight to the government in the committee that selects judges, and deny courts the right to rule on actions they deem in conflict with Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

“I am concerned that, if passed, these changes risk weakening human rights protections for all, but especially the most vulnerable communities and groups less able to vindicate their rights through representation in the executive and legislative branches of government,” Turk said.

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, near the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 20, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said such groups include, among others, Arab Israelis, asylum seekers and LGBTQ people.

“Changes going to the heart of a country’s long-standing constitutional structure, and which affect well-established institutional safeguards, should only be undertaken following extensive consultation and with broad political and public consensus,” said Turk.

“Given the degree of public and political concern, I call on the government of Israel to pause the proposed legislative changes and open them up for wider debate and reflection. Such issues at the heart of rule of law deserve the fullest consideration in order to ensure that any changes promote, rather than diminish, the ability of the judiciary — and other branches of government — to protect the rights of all people in Israel.”

The key planks in the government’s push to radically transform the judicial system include legislation to grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limiting the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enabling the Knesset to re-legislate, with a bare majority of 61 MKs, laws the court does manage to annul.

Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms would undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other coalition members have dismissed the criticism, and Netanyahu insists the reform is overdue and will strengthen Israeli democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, right, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A broad and vocal chorus of criticism stretching from the judiciary through civil society and to the business community has warned that the moves will essentially neuter Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances; weekly protests have drawn 100,000 or more to the streets, piling pressure on the government to compromise.

Meanwhile, foreign allies expressed worry that the moves could leave minority rights unprotected and warnings came from some in the business community that the turmoil could sour the investment environment in Israel.

Israeli officials lambasted Turk’s comments with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan all claiming that the UN Human Rights Council should focus instead on violations committed by Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority.

“The UN Human Rights Council is a biased and ineffective body,” Netanyahu said in a statement, blasting the comments as an “absurdity” and insisting that his government’s proposals to weaken the High Court of Justice will only strengthen the Democracy in Israel.”

“The UN Human Rights Council commissioner, who is responsible for one of the most distorted and immoral bodies in the world, is the last one who can teach Israel what democracy is,” Erdan said in his own statement.

The Israeli envoy argued that Turk’s statement “has no legal or moral validity and he has no right to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs.”

Cohen struck a similar tone, declaring that “any connection between the UN human rights commissioner and human rights is purely coincidental.”

“We will not accept moral preaching from those who… attack Israel — the only democracy in the Middle East — more than any other country,” Cohen said in a statement. “The State of Israel will continue to be a strong and prosperous democracy, which will protect individual rights.”

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