Israel to End Boycott of UN Human Rights Council Under Pressure From West

By Patrick Goodenough | October 28, 2013 | 4:10am EDT

The United Nations' Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo)

( – After shunning the U.N.’s flagship human rights body for the past 17 months and defying it over a scheduled review of its rights record, Israel backed down on Sunday and agreed to take part, after coming under pressure from Western governments worried about the precedent its boycott was setting.

Israel stopped cooperating with the Human Rights Council (HRC) in May 2012, after claiming grossly unfair treatment for years at the hands of the Geneva-based body. Of all the resolutions ever passed by the council condemning a specific country, more than one-third have applied to Israel alone. Israel is one of 193 member-states.

As part of its non-cooperation stance, Israel last January became the first country to refuse to take part in the “universal periodic review” (UPR), an exercise every member-state is expected to undergo once every four years.

The stay-away caused tumult, with the U.S. and others saying it would undermine a worthwhile council mechanism and may prompt other countries to refuse to take part in the future.

The HRC reluctantly granted an extension, and scheduled another opportunity for Israel to participate on Tuesday.

The Hebrew-language daily Ha’aretz reported at the weekend that the German government had written to Netanyahu late last week warning that failure to undergo the UPR would cause Israel “severe diplomatic damage.”

At the eleventh hour Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has now reportedly agreed to take part.

According to unnamed officials quoted in Israeli media, Israel in return secured Western support in two key areas where it says it has been discriminated against at the council – being the only country targeted by a permanent item on the HRC agenda; and the only country that does not belong to any of the five regional groups in Geneva.

As the only country subjected to a permanent item on the agenda, Israel comes under condemnation at every regular HRC session, irrespective of crises occurring anywhere else in the world.

The disproportionate focus on Israel was one of the key reasons given by the Bush administration for staying away from the HRC, but its successor joined in 2009, characterizing its membership as a centerpiece of its policy of engagement with the U.N.,

The Obama administration has frequently criticized the Israel-focused agenda item, but when the HRC in 2011 completed a review of its first five years in operation, agenda item seven remained intact. Although the administration protested over the retention of what it called “one of the council’s most egregious flaws,” that did not stop it from running for a second term the following year.

As item seven remains on the official agenda, it is not clear what kind of undertaking Western countries could have given Israel in exchange for its agreement to end its boycott. Ha’aretz cited officials as saying there would be a “limitation” of the use of the item, but without explanation.

A government source told the Jerusalem Post that until the agenda question is resolved, Western countries had agreed not to address the HRC under item seven. However, that will not stop other council members – most of which are not Western democracies – from doing so.

A second major Israeli concern has been its exclusion from a regional group at the HRC.

Israel’s natural U.N. geographical grouping is Asia, but Arab rejectionism has ruled out Israeli membership for decades. Not belonging to any group meant it could not assume committee assignments or leadership posts at the U.N.

As a result of U.S. pressure, Israel since 2000 has been granted membership of the Western European and Others (WEOG) group, which includes such non-European democracies as the U.S., Canada and Australia. But that applies only to U.N. activities in New York, not in Geneva.

Ha’aretz reported that as part of its agreement to return to the HRC, Western nations have agreed to invite Israel to join WEOG in Geneva later this year.

Despite the concerns voiced about harm being done to the UPR procedure by Israel’s boycott, critics say the much-touted mechanism has in practice been farcical at times, witnessing countries with poor rights records, such as Iran and China, being praised by allies often with equally bad records.

Last week, for example, Saudi Arabia was applauded during its UPR by countries including Libya, Pakistan, Egypt, Cuba and China, including praise for its treatment of women and “religious tolerance.”

During an earlier session, Syria’s rights record won plaudits from Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Burma, Belarus and Sudan.

When Western countries have undergone their reviews, such countries have seized the opportunity to score political points and retaliate for some of the criticism that usually flows the other way, as seen during the U.S.’s review, in 2010.

U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva, said in response to Israel’s decision late Sunday that the council should now “show good faith” by removing the Israel agenda item and ending its regional group exclusion.

It noted that both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, had in the past questioned the HRC’s treatment of Israel.

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