(CNSNews.com) – The United States on Monday took its seat on the U.N.’s three year-old Human Rights Council for the first time, for a session that once again promises controversy over the council’s single most focused-upon topic – Israel.
The three-week long, 12th regular session of the 47-nation council will include consideration of and debate over a report compiled by investigators into allegations of war crimes during Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last winter.
The inquiry was mandated by a “special session” of the HRC last January, which passed a resolution condemning Israel for “massive violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people.”
The resolution did not directly mention Hamas or its attacks against Israeli civilians – the stated reason given by Jerusalem for mounting what it called Operation Cast Lead last December. (Of 17 operative paragraphs, one paragraph urged “all parties … to refrain from violence against the civilian population.”)
The investigation’s mandate is simply to probe violations by Israel against the Palestinians.
The resolution passed by a 33-1 vote, with Canada alone in rejecting it. Thirteen members – Japan, South Korea, Cameroon and ten European countries – abstained.
In April, the council announced that the investigation would be chaired by Richard Goldstone, a respected South African judge and former U.N. war crimes prosecutor, and include three other experts.
Making the announcement, HRC president Martin Uhomoibhi of Nigeria said he was confident it would operate “in an independent and impartial manner.”
Groups supportive of Israel quickly raised doubts, however, pointing to what they viewed as an unbalanced mandate that prejudged the inquiry.
Goldstone has stressed his intention to investigate allegations of war crimes and violations on all sides, but the Israeli government rejected the inquiry and its mandate and refused to cooperate.
Another concern raised was the fact that one of the inquiry’s members, Prof. Christine Chinkin of the London School of Economics, had signed a letter last January rejecting Israel’s assertion that its operation constituted self-defense against Hamas rocket attacks.
The letter, signed by 27 academics and lawyers and published in a London newspaper, condemned Hamas’ attacks against Israelis, but concluded that “the manner and scale of [Israel’s] operations in Gaza amount to an act of aggression and is contrary to international law, notwithstanding the rocket attacks by Hamas.”
During a dialogue with non-governmental organizations in Geneva last May, Chinkin was challenged on her support for the letter by one of the participating NGOs, U.N. Watch, and responded that she had signed it long before she was asked to take part in a fact-finding mission.
“I, along with all others member of the mission, intend fully to act with total integrity, and look at the facts of what had occurred on the basis of the evidence, on the basis of the evaluation, on the basis of all materials that we can cover,” she said.
The controversy continued, however, with U.N. Watch – a Geneva-based monitoring group – formally seeking Chinkin’s disqualification from the inquiry, charging that she had publicly taken a stand on the disputed issues the investigation was meant to be examining impartially.
The fact-finding mission rejected the appeal, saying the investigation was not a judicial proceeding.
Late last week 18 British and 32 Canadian lawyers and academics challenged Chinkin’s refusal to stand down.
“As a professor of international law at the London School of Economics, you must recognize that your actions have given rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias,” they said in a letter to Chinking.
“As colleagues in the law and academia, each of us committed to fairness and the principle that justice must be seen to be done, we are disappointed that you have refused to step down. Your continued participation necessarily compromises the integrity of this inquiry and its report.”
U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said Sunday that Arab and Islamic countries on the council were hoping to use the Goldstone report, once it is released, to push for Israel’s indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
He noted that the U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay, voiced support recently for just such an outcome.
During a Reuters interview last month, Pillay pointed out that U.N. Security Council members had acted on a report by her predecessor by asking the ICC to investigate atrocities in Darfur, and added, “I hope that they would respond similarly if the Goldstone investigation does point to possible war crimes.”
The HRC session beginning Monday will also consider a second report on Gaza, compiled by Pillay, and mandated by the same resolution last January that created the Goldstone inquiry.
Pillay’s 32-page report on Operation Cast Lead ends with five recommendations which among other things call on Israel to end the blockade of Gaza, stop “expansion of settlements, which are illegal,” halt evictions and home demolitions, and address “settler violence.”
The recommendations include a reference to violations of international humanitarian law “committed by all parties,” but do not name Hamas or any other Palestinian terror group.
‘Into the arena’
The HRC has long drawn criticism for a disproportionate focus on Israel, and that was one of the main reasons given by the Bush administration for neither supporting nor joining the body after it was created in 2006.
Israel has been discussed frequently and at length during the 11 regular sessions held by the council since mid-2006, and the body has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than all of the other 191 U.N. member states combined.
Of a total of 11 special sessions held, five dealt with Israel (Of the other six, one each related to Burma, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka, and the remaining two to the world food crisis and the global economic crisis.)
The Obama administration decided to resume cooperation with the council, and last May stood for election for one of the seven seats earmarked for Western nations.
At a dinner in New York City on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited concerns raised by some about the administration’s decision to enter a body which its predecessor shunned.
“When I made the decision that we would rejoin the Human Rights Council there were those who questioned that – how can you be part of something that is so contrary to the values that we espouse, that we wish to uphold, not only here at home but around the world?” she said.
“Well, we are going into the arena,” Clinton declared. “One of our priorities will be upholding universal standards for freedom of expression as we combat intolerance and discrimination everywhere it rears it head.”
The 47 council seats are allocated in line with the U.N. regional group breakdown, with the Asian and African groups together enjoying a locked-in majority of 26 seats.
Of the present council members, 23 are classified as “free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House. Fifteen members belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the bloc which has promoted an anti-Israel agenda as well as the campaign against what it calls religious “defamation.”