Israel Refuses to Subject Its Human Rights Record to a U.N. Body It Views As Biased

By Patrick Goodenough | January 29, 2013 | 5:12am EST

The U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva on December 10, 2012. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

(Update: Israeli delegates did not show up for Tuesday afternoon’s scheduled review in Geneva, and the Human Rights Council suspended the meeting. It issued a statement “regretting” Israel’s decision and agreeing to postpone the review until November at the latest. The council would also consider “any steps that may be deemed appropriate” in response to the unprecedented boycott.)

( – Ten months after it severed ties with the U.N.’s top human rights body – accusing it of hypocrisy and bias – Israel looked set Tuesday to become the first U.N. member state to boycott the council’s review of its human rights record.

As of early Tuesday, it was unclear whether the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) would go ahead with Israel’s “universal periodic review” in its absence, and attempts to get a response from its spokesman were unsuccessful.

All 193 members of the world body are expected to undergo a UPR once every four years, and Israel’s non-attendance would be unprecedented.

The Obama administration, a keen supporter of the Human Rights Council (HRC) and its UPR process, has urged Israel to reconsider and take part.

The HRC’s official itinerary still has “review of Israel” marked down for the Tuesday afternoon time slot, and the council’s “adoption” of the Israel report is scheduled for Thursday.

If the UPR goes ahead, it will likely see delegates line up to criticize Israel over policies in the disputed territories, including the security barrier it began building in 2002 between areas under its control and those administered by the Palestinian Authority in a bid to deter suicide bombings, and the security blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The UPR process involves a three-hour “interactive dialogue” among delegates, based on three reports – one prepared by the government under review, one by U.N. agencies, and one summarizing submissions from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

After the discussion, a “troika” of randomly-selected countries compiles a document containing recommendations arising from the proceedings. The full HRC then “adopts” that document.

On Tuesday, no report from the Israeli government was available on the council website. The other two reports for Israel’s UPR were accessible. The NGO report is dominated by criticism of Israel, from organizations ranging from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to a Tehran-based group called the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence.

The “troika” selected to compile the report on Israel’s UPR are Venezuela, Maldives and Sierra Leone. Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez is one of Israel’s most virulent critics in the international community; Maldives and Sierra Leone are both members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), also a leading critic of the Jewish state.

Earlier this month Israel asked the HRC to postpone its UPR, but there was no indication that other members were willing to agree. No UPR has ever been postponed, apart from Haiti’s shortly after the 2010 earthquake.

Last Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to the HRC, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, told reporters in Geneva the administration was urging Israel not to boycott the review.

She acknowledged that the U.S. sees an ongoing “strong bias against Israel” at the council, but said, “We have encouraged Israel to come to the UPR, to tell its story, to present its own narrative of its human rights situation. We think it is a good opportunity to do that.”

‘Credibility and integrity’

Earlier, HRC spokesman Rolando Gomez said some member states have expressed concern about the effect of an Israeli stayaway on the “credibility and integrity” of the UPR process.

When the HRC was established in 2006, the UPR was held up as one of its most significant mechanisms – one ensuring that every country, including the most severe violators, would periodically be in the spotlight and have to explain its policies to the rest of the international community.

In practice, however, the UPR’s “credibility and integrity” have been repeatedly marred, as countries with poor rights records, such as Iran and China, strolled through the procedure, praised by allies and shrugging off criticism by Western countries.

The pattern was vividly on show last March, when aspects of Syria’s rights record were applauded by Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Burma, Belarus and Sudan; and Zimbabwe’s human rights efforts drew praise from Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Burma, Iran, China, Russia and Venezuela.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration has enthusiastically embraced the UPR process. Before the U.S. had its first review in November 2010 it held a series of consultation sessions with American citizens and NGOs including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The administration then compiled a comprehensive report – which controversially included references to Arizona’s immigration law – and sent a senior delegation to Geneva for the review.

Countries with poor records stacked the speaker’s list in an apparent bid to dominate the time-limited discussion on the U.S. human rights record. Cuba, Venezuela and Iran took the top three spots and Russia, Nicaragua, North Korea, China and Libya were also high up the list.

The administration frequently points to the HRC as a highlight of its policy of deepening engagement with the United Nations, and has called the UPR process “a significant tool for the protection and promotion of human rights.”

UPR Info, a Geneva-based NGO focused on ensuring the UPR works successfully, has expressed concern about the possibility of Israel boycotting its review.

“UPR Info promotes the universality of the UPR, a principle which has been key to its success,” it said in an earlier statement. “All states have to be equally treated; in order to maintain this universality, no state can be given favorable treatment.”

The NGO urged the council to go ahead with the review even if Israel does not attend, “in order to maintain an equal treatment of all states.”

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