Israel once again found itself criticised and condemned at the United Nations Human Rights Council this week at that body’s 23rd session in Geneva. And Israel was not there to rebut it, having stuck to its decision in January to disengage from the Council. This is a stance that undermines Israel in the eyes of the many states unconcerned with the conflict in the Occupied Territories.
It is beyond dispute that Israel commits human-rights violations. It is also clear that the Council’s excessive and disproportionate focus on Israel undermines the credibility of its decisions. When Richard Falk, the special rapporteur on the Territories, stood before the Council, he found himself preaching to the converted — and the disinterested.
Falk’s report was delivered under Agenda Item 7, the only standing item to single out one country. During the Council’s creation, many states, including from the EU, hoped that allowing the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to place Israel on the Council’s permanent agenda would confine discussions of that country to one day per session.
How wrong they were.
Commentators, practitioners, countries, and even high-level UN staff have publicly criticised the Council’s gross politicisation and selectivity regarding Israel. And, for a year or so, the Arab Spring uprisings meant that Israel was no longer the primary focus within the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. The Council was able to focus on human-rights situations elsewhere in the Middle East. Action was taken on Libya and Syria, and discussions highlighted violations in Bahrain, Tunisia and Iran.
The honeymoon did not last long. In January, Israel failed to attend its own Universal Periodic Review session. That step has been a turning point, not for Israel’s allies or its enemies but rather for the many countries that have little interest in the ongoing conflict.
Universal Periodic Review, in which all states submit to exactly the same process, is a crucial tool for monitoring human rights across the world. All countries participate, from Sweden to Somalia, Norway to North Korea. All countries, that is, except Israel.
Israel believes it has strong reasons for withdrawal. The review session had become another place for politicised and excessive scrutiny. Moreover, as the only country not afforded membership of any UN regional group, Israel cannot stand for election to the very body that disproportionately condemns its actions. Those are valid concerns, but by disengaging from the Council and refusing to attend its review session, Israel has become a pariah among countries disinterested in the conflict. Such states often criticised those countries who seek to discuss Israel during unrelated Council sessions. These are states that were prepared to abstain or vote against resolutions on Israel. Yet those same states now are likely to have a negative view of Israel for undermining the universality of the Universal Periodic Review.
Israel needs to re-engage with the Council in order to put forward its point of view. By continuing to absent itself, it will find increasing numbers of countries on its enemies’ side of the fence.