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Linking Obligations with Rights at the UNHRC

The UN Human Rights Council yesterday released a predictable report deeming Israeli settlements–including huge Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem–a “war crime” and demanding the evacuation of all their hundreds of thousands of residents, thereby throwing every Israeli-Palestinian peace plan ever proposed out the window: All such plans envision Israel retaining parts of East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. The report would thus seem unhelpful to the “peace process” that Western governments so ardently support. But it’s arousing far less ire among these governments than Israel’s refusal to cooperate with the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review process, under which every country’s human rights record is supposed to be scrutinized every four years. As U.S. ambassador to the council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe explained, “The United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review, and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed.”

Yet as Professor Anne Bayefsky pointed out, it’s immensely hypocritical to insist on universality of obligations without universality of rights. And in two important ways, Israel doesn’t enjoy the same rights at the HRC as every other country does. First, it’s the only country whose alleged human-rights abuses are a permanent agenda item: The council has one agenda item for Israel, and one for all the other 192 UN member states. Second, it’s the only country that isn’t a full member of any regional working group. Bayefsky therefore proposed a simple quid pro quo: Israel should promise to uphold the universality of the review process the moment the council upholds the universality of Israel’s rights as a member state.

If Israel’s leaders had any diplomatic smarts, they would long since have adopted this strategy. But Israel’s stupidity doesn’t excuse the hypocrisy of the Western governments that are pressuring it to comply with the universal review while making no effort to end these other distortions. By insisting that the council’s violations of Israel’s rights produce no corresponding reduction in Israel’s obligations toward the council, they are essentially saying it’s perfectly fine to deny Israel the rights enjoyed by every other UN member: After all, in other spheres of life, these governments do think that denial of rights reduces obligations. Just for example, does anyone remember “no taxation without representation”?

In short, Western governments are implicitly endorsing the council’s anti-Israel bias even as they publicly claim to oppose it. In fact, they even actively collaborate in it: After all, one of these two distortions–full membership in a regional working group–is in their power to rectify; nobody is stopping them from making Israel a full member of the Western working group.

That’s also why the claim that Israel’s refusal could serve as a precedent for egregious rights violators like North Korea or Zimbabwe is so ridiculous: Unlike Israel, none of these countries are denied the universal rights granted all other UN members states; hence they have no grounds for refusing to honor their obligations.

But since the council has agreed to postpone Israel’s review to allow time for a rethink, Western governments still have a chance to do the right thing: insist that the council’s systemic denial of Israel’s rights come to an end. Once that happens, I’m sure they’ll have no trouble getting Israel to comply with its obligations.


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