UPR and Israel

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.



4 thoughts on “UPR and Israel

  1. I fully agree on the need to uphold the principles of universality and equality, upon which the UPR, United Nations and Human Rights Council were founded.

    To truly remedy the problem, however, one needs to diagnose the root cause. One needs to recognize that, in fact, it was the HRC’s systematic denial of these principles that prompted Israel to pull out in the first place.

    And so the best way for the HRC to impress upon Israel the value of the principles of universality and equality will be for the Council to end its own policy and practice of denying of those principles in regard to Israel. Until that happens, the HRC comes to Israel with unclean hands. Its appeals to principle ring untrue.

    Let us consider the underlying issues concerning the HRC, Israel, and the principles of universality and equality:

    1: When HRC sessions as a pattern and practice adopt more resolutions condemning Israel than on the rest of the world combined, the Council denies the principles of equality and universality.

    In the March 2013 session, to give one recent example, there were six one-sided resolutions against Israel – and only four condemnations on the rest of the world combined. The vast majority of the world’s victims of gross and systematic violations failed to merit a single resolution. Sadly, time and again, the HRC has turned a blind eye to mass killings in Iran (2009), Egypt (2011, 2013), Iraq (weekly), and elsewhere.

    2: When Israel is the object of more emergency sessions than on any other country in the world, the Council denies the principles of equality and universality.

    3: When Israel is the only country excluded from the HRC’s regional group system, the Council denies the principles of equality and universality. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized this ‘long-standing anomaly,’ which prevents Israel from participating fully in the work of the organization. Sir Robert Jennings, former president of the International Court of Justice, said that it ‘places the U.N. in breach of its fundamental obligations regarding sovereign equality and is thus illegal.’

    4: When Richard Falk, investigator on the Palestinian territories, is mandated by the Council to focus solely on Israel’s actions, and presumes them in advance to be “violations” of international law — language absent from even the mandate on Sudan — the Council denies the principles of equality and universality.

    Falk’s support for the Hamas terrorist organization is so extreme that even the Palestinian Authority asked him to resign. Falk does not deny this. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly condemned Falk’s actions, yet the Council is silent. On the contrary, they applaud, endorse and encourage his bias.

    5: When the very agenda of every HRC session entrenches a special agenda item singling out Israel — the only country situation to be singled out on the entire agenda — the Council denies the principles of equality and universality.

    Therefore, whether one agrees or not with Israel’s absence from the UPR, one will never address or remedy the problem of its absence without recognizing that it was in reaction to the HRC’s systematic denial of the principles of equality and universality that Israel left in the first place,

    For a council that does all of these things and more on an ongoing basis to then accuse Israel of undermining those principles is the height of audacity and hypocrisy. It is not persuasive.

    It it my hope that people of goodwill will speak out and demand that the Council end its denial of these principles in regard to Israel, and that Israel will return to the UPR.

  2. Pingback: UPR and Israel « IntLawGrrls | Dr Rosa Freedman

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