GENEVA, Switzerland — A pro-Israel rights group filed a complaint Monday against the head of a UN investigation into systematic abuses in Israel and the Palestinian territories, demanding she resign for being prejudiced against the Jewish state.
Navi Pillay, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was appointed last July to head a high-level probe into “all underlying root causes” in the drawn-out conflict.
UN Watch, a Geneva-based rights group that monitors UN activities, said the South African jurist had displayed “demonstrable bias against Israel, including on issues specifically related to the case and controversy that is the object of this inquiry.”
“Many of the utterances in question occurred mere weeks before she was appointed by the UN [last] summer, leaving little room to imagine how Pillay could envisage the issues any differently so soon afterwards,” UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer said in a statement.
The group, which routinely criticizes UN mandate-holders for anti-Israel bias, called for Pillay to recuse herself from the so-called Commission of Inquiry (COI) — the highest level of UN rights investigations.
“In the event that she refuses to do so, we request Federico Villegas, the President of the Human Rights Council, to remove her,” UN Watch said.
Asked about the complaint, a UN rights office spokeswoman told AFP: “We have seen and are following up.”
UN Watch gave as an example quotes from a June 14, 2021, joint letter to US President Joe Biden in which Pillay lamented Israel’s “domination and oppression of the Palestinian people” and called on the US to address the root of the violence by ending Israel’s “ever-expanding discrimination and systemic oppression.”
The letter also told Biden that clashes at the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem the same year were “aggressive actions by Israeli forces” against “peaceful protesters and worshippers” as well as “forced dispossession” of Palestinians and the “latest evidence of a separate and unequal governing system.”
In June 2020 Pillay also signed a petition organized by the South African Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (SA BDS) Coalition, entitled “Sanction Apartheid Israel!” UN Watch said.
Then in a May 2021 lecture, she described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “inhuman” and compared Israel to apartheid South Africa.
And while serving as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights she said that the Israeli government treats international law “with perpetual disdain.”
“It is 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,” Neuer said in the statement.
“By heading this inquiry despite having repeatedly declared Israel guilty of precisely the crimes that she is supposed to investigate, Navi Pillay embodies the injustice of the UN and its human rights council when it comes to the selective treatment of the Jewish state,” he said.
“From her many statements, a clear pattern emerges that in Pillay’s eyes, Israel is a cruel and oppressive colonizer, and a racist regime. Her narrative of who is the villain is set in stone,” he said.
Pillay served as UN rights chief from 2008 to 2014 and also served as a judge with the International Criminal Court and as Judge President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Prior to that, Pillay, who is of Indian Tamil origin, became in 1967 the first non-white woman to open her own law practices in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where she represented people protesting apartheid.
The COI she is leading was created during a special session of the UN Human Rights Council held last May to discuss the 11-day Hamas-Israel war that month, which killed 260 Palestinians and 13 people on the Israeli side.
It was tasked with looking beyond that surge in violence and to investigate “all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law” in Israel and the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.
While the council had previously ordered eight investigations into rights violations committed in the Palestinian territories, this was the first open-ended probe, and the first to examine “root causes” in the drawn-out conflict.
It was also the first tasked with looking at systematic abuses committed within Israel.