Comparatively speaking, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is still in its infancy. Set up only fifteen years ago by the UN General Assembly, it had one over-riding purpose – to rectify the egregious faults of its predecessor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). The Commission had been a working body of the United Nations virtually from its foundation in 1946, but over its 60 years of existence it had accrued a raft of objectionable practices which finally made the organization totally unacceptable to many governments, and eventually to the UN itself.
Among its more unseemly usages was to include among its members representatives of states with records of flagrant human rights violations and, moreover, to elect such people from time to time to chair the Commission − representatives of countries like Zimbabwe, Algeria, Syria, Libya, Vietnam and China. These individuals, by opposing resolutions which condemned human rights violations, in effect sustained and promoted despotism and repression. Finally the Commission seemed to have turned its purpose on its head, and far from identifying and eliminating violations of human rights, in many cases supported, if not actively encouraged, them.
For example, the Commission turned a blind eye toward violations of the UN charter committed by member states. When issues such as the stoning of women, honor killings, modern slavery, mutilations, and the death penalty for apostasy were raised during the 60th Session of the UNCHR in 2004, officials from certain Muslim-majority states rejected any criticism as “interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” The Commission meekly gave way, and abstained from pursuing the issues.
The other face of this overt political bias – and a major cause of criticism of the Commission − was its compliance with being used as a UN-backed platform from which selective targets could be condemned and vilified. The chief victim was Israel. An analysis in 2003 revealed that the UNCHR had devoted no less than 33 per cent of its country-specific resolutions to condemning Israel in one way or another.
All this finally became too much even for the UN General Assembly, which in 2006 voted overwhelmingly to disband the old Commission and to set up a shining new United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in its place.
How has the body been doing?
It is perhaps, significant, that UNHRC is UNCHR with just one letter transposed. In short, you can barely see the difference. For example, in its first six years – that is, from the time of its foundation in 2006 until 2012 − the Council published nine reports on Syria’s mass killings of its own citizens, and three on the terrorist-supporting repressive régime in Iran. It published nothing on China, which was far removed from granting its billion citizens basic human rights. Yet in those six years it published no less than 48 reports condemning Israel.
More than this, the Council voted on June 18, 2007 to include, as a permanent feature of each of its three annual sessions, a review of alleged human rights abuses by Israel − a resolution sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This Item 7, the only standing item directed at a specific country, has become a permanent feature of the UNHRC agenda, and as a result the Council has so far targeted Israel with 90 condemnatory resolutions, more than the rest of the world combined.
Which countries’ representatives sit in judgment on Israel’s human rights record? The UNHRC’s current membership includes China, Russia, Cuba, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan and Venezuela. It almost goes without saying that in its recent 2018 session the Council passed no resolutions on human rights violations by − for example − China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Qatar, or Venezuela, about each of which there is much to say.
US president George W Bush gave the UNHRC a year before deciding not to join. The White House spokesman at the time said that the Council “has thus far not proved itself to be a credible body in the mission that it has been charged with. There has been a nearly singular focus on issues related to Israel, for example, to the exclusion of examining issues of real concern to the international system, whether that’s Cuba or Burma or in North Korea.”
Less than two months after entering office in 2009, Barack Obama had the US join the body, on the grounds that by “working from within, we can make the Council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights.”
In 2018, under president Donald Trump, the US withdrew. “When the Human Rights Council treats Israel worse than North Korea, Iran and Syria,” said former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, “it is the Council itself that is foolish and unworthy of its name.”
On February 8, 2021 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US was returning to the UNHRC as an observer. His justification for doing so: the UNHRC is flawed and needs reform, “but walking away won’t fix it. The best way to improve the Council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled US leadership. Under Biden we are re-engaging and ready to lead.”
It seems obvious that the skewed and disproportionate emphasis on Israel over the years, by both the UNHCR and its predecessor body, has reflected their pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel membership. The OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) ‒ the body which sponsored the vexatious Item 7 directed against Israel ‒ has consistently enjoyed a significant bloc of members on the 47-nation Council, as well as additional support from other states who support the Palestinian cause.
However, history has not stood still since Trump walked away from the UNHRC. Partly as a result of his own efforts, a new spirit of normalization is sweeping across the Middle East. Arab States have signed up to the Abraham Accords, and other Muslim states have expressed varying degrees of interest in engaging with Israel in pragmatic arrangements that disconnect economic development from the Israel-Palestine dispute. In short, support for the Palestinian cause is no longer synonymous with condemning Israel at every opportunity.
It is possible, indeed likely, that this change of atmosphere will be reflected within the UNHRC. It may prove the key that unlocks reform of that deeply flawed organization. The Biden administration may have acted at precisely the right moment.