The United Nations Human Rights Council is conducting the second cycle of its Universal Periodic Review mechanism. In January this year, Israel became the first country to refuse to attend its review session. That decision has been a diplomatic disaster. The Council has rescheduled the review for Tuesday 29th October. The question now is whether or not Israel will send a delegate to participate in this rescheduled session. So far, during the mechanism’s first two cycles, every single UN member state has attended its own review session. Every country, that is, except for Israel. The UPR relies upon universality – meaning that any country that pulls out can topple the house of cards. If Israel does not send someone – anyone – then its non-participation will both weaken the UPR and that country’s standing in the eyes of all of its peers.
In May 2012, Israel sent a letter stating that it would no longer engage with the Human Rights Council. During the Council’s first five years, its excessive scrutiny of and disproportionate attention to Israel had undermined the body’s credibility. There is no doubt that the Council is biased, selective and politicised in its treatment of Israel. But that country’s stance has widely been criticised by both its friends and foes. Non-participation not only sends a strong political and diplomatic message to those that criticise Israel, it also removes the possibility of that country presenting its position to the very many states who neither take a side nor have an interest in the conflict occurring within the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Failure to be present during discussions leaves those neutral, or disinterested, states only hearing one side of the debate.
But Israel’s decision not to participate in the Universal Periodic Review is far more serious than its disengagement from Council sessions. The UPR is a universal mechanism created as part of the reform process that disbanded the Commission on Human Rights and replaced that body with the Human Rights Council. UPR is an innovative mechanism that scrutinises every country’s human rights record during a four year cycle. The mechanism is a peer-review conducted by states, with input from UN independent experts, NGOs, national human rights institutions and other civil society actors. The reviews seek to provide transparency, accountability and scrutiny of national human rights records. Recommendations are then provided to the country concerned in order to strengthen and improve the realisation of human rights within their territories.
The United Nations is tasked with protecting and promoting human rights. UPR is a promotion mechanism designed to ensure information-sharing, discussion and recommendations for every UN member state. This means that all countries are under the spotlight, unlike at the Council where politics and the gravity of a situation play significant roles in determining the attention devoted to human rights violations.
Every country participates in the UPR, from Sweden to Somalia, from Turkey to Tuvalu. Autocratic and dictatorial regimes send delegates to present country reports, to listen to the information provided by other actors, to respond to questions from other countries and to receive recommendations. Small and economically weak states send delegations despite the logistical and financial difficulties involved. No country enjoys being scrutinised; no state welcomes being ‘named and shamed’ in front of its peers. But the need for universality is accepted by all countries. All of them, that is, bar Israel.
Israel is a democratic state. It is economically more developed than most of its peers. Israel has national human rights institutions, free and functioning media, an independent judiciary, mechanisms available for protecting and promoting human rights, and allows NGOs to operate within its territory. Yet its stance on Universal Periodic Review undermines all of those factors, at least in the eyes of countries that have little interest in the ongoing situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Those countries will see Israel refusing to participate as a political decision that could undermine or weaken this fledgling and necessary mechanism designed for promoting human rights across the world.
It is crucial that Israel attend the review next week – crucial for the legitimacy of the UPR and crucial for Israel’s position within the United Nations. It is widely being said in UN corridors that no-one would mind if Israel sent a driver to sit in the delegate’s chair. Participation is all that anyone cares about, and that is a message that Israel needs to take on board in the coming days.