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Rights and wrongs

How rights violators keep the UN Human Rights Council focused on Israel

Politics in progress. EPA/Martial Trezzini

Another UN human rights report has been released about Israel and the human rights abuses it perpetrates in the Occupied Territories – yet another report that highlights ongoing violations of international law and that criticises state actors and organs, greeted with yet another symbolic resolution at the UN in Geneva. And of course, all the usual suspects are up in arms.

One side says that the report is not strong enough in its condemnation; the other side cries “selectivity”, “bias”, “unfairness”. Neither listens to the other because everyone would rather broadcast to a global public audience. And ultimately those words drown out the very real issues of Israeli violations and of how the spotlight shone on Israel is done so to shield other grave abusers from scrutiny.

The report, like so very many others, will make little practical impact. It is not binding, it sheds little new light on the situation, and it uncovers no facts that are not already widely known. It is a propaganda exercise – as is the rhetoric from everyone who is currently jumping up and down in supposedly righteous anger.

These reports, resolutions, decisions and other documents are not aimed at changing the human rights situation, but rather at propping up entrenched political narratives that make no difference to the situation on the ground.

So, why bother? The depressing answer, as ever, is for the cynical purposes of pure politics.

Gaming the system

The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body, which makes it political by its very nature. States that are members send government delegates to represent them rather than independent experts as are found at many other UN bodies. Government delegates represent the interests of their home states, particularly where it comes to politically sensitive or contentious issues. As far as intergovernmental bodies go, that’s just the name of the game.

So of course the Human Rights Council is politicised. Countries frequently act according to national and regional political objectives rather than an idealistic stance on human rights. Indeed, that is a main reason why the body does not hold binding powers, and has little more than political sway within the wider UN system.

The easy target. EPA/Salvatore di Nolfi

To understand those politics, it is crucial to understand the council’s composition. The body’s 47 seats are apportioned according to proportionate geographic representation. That means, for example, that the African and Asian groups each have 13 seats, whereas the Western European and Others group only holds seven. The dominant political bloc is the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), whose member states span four of the five regional groups.

That means that the OIC invariably has a sizeable number of its member states sitting at the council and may also count on support from large numbers of those states’ regional allies at the body. And of course, one of the OIC’s main aims is to ensure that Israel is scrutinised, reported upon and held to account for its violations. Little wonder, then, that the spotlight has constantly been shone on Israel throughout the council’s nine years of existence.

Off balance

Of course Israel commits human rights abuses; anyone that says otherwise is either wilfully blind, ignorant, or a liar. But the fact that it commits violations does not mean that it ought to be treated in a disproportionate manner. Israel is an occupying power – as are China, Turkey, and Morocco, among others, all of whom ought to be scrutinised. Israel is a democratic state and ought to be held accountable to the same standards as other liberal democracies – or rather, they should be held to the same standards Israel is.

Israel should certainly be in the council’s spotlight, but in an even-handed and proportionate manner. Yet since its creation in 2006, the council has only had one permanent agenda item that focuses on a country situation rather than a thematic or general human rights issue – and only one country that has received vastly disproportionate attention through Special Sessions, reports, and resolutions. That country, of course, is Israel.

But why is it that Israel receives that level of attention when abuses by Russia, China, Egypt, the Gambia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and so many other grave human rights abusers, are all but ignored? Why are Islamic states and their allies so determined to ensure that Israel remains on the Council’s radar?

Perhaps it really does reflect a desire to liberate and end the subjugation of the Palestinian people, although many of those same states themselves hardly treat Palestinians well. Perhaps it is motivated by the urge to remove a colonial power from within their midst, although it is doubtful that many of those same states would accept 1948 borders if even that were a possibility.

It might be because a constant focus on Israel deflects attention away from horrific rights violations elsewhere in the Middle East. It might even be because Israel represents some of the worst aspects of US interference, a vestige of the Cold War.

But it’s almost irrelevant why states are motivated to behave as they do; anyone who follows the Human Rights Council’s work knows that its discussions about Israel are simply a part of a broader political back-and-forth. The point is that this is not just waffle. The council’s myopic obsession with Israel undermines its credibility and legitimacy, which is why a sizeable minority of member states avoid getting too involved in its work on Israel at all.

All the while, the charade of progress on the Palestinian people’s situation is kept up. Sadly for the victims in this case, the Human Rights Council’s work on Israel does little more than provide soundbites to two opposing sides that are more concerned with their own, often unrelated, agendas than anything else.

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