Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Australia joins the UN Human Rights Council – but can it help reform that troubled and problematic body?

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Naomi Levin


This week, to almost no public fanfare, an Australian representative spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first time since this country took its elected seat on January 1.

Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove represented Australia at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council and delivered our national statement on Monday.

The UN Human Rights Council has courted controversy for many years, with claims its mandate to protect and promote human rights is diminished by the participation of member states, including Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, who violate universal human rights on a daily basis. (For details on the human rights "expertise" of 12 of the most problematic current members of the UNHRC, see here.)

The UN Human Rights Council has also been a reliable source of anti-Israel rhetoric and gross double standards. This week, it continued to live up to that reputation.

The Israel bashing started at the very top on Monday. Plucked from all of the world's most nefarious human rights abuses, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordanian Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, singled out the arrest of Palestinian Ahed Tamimi in his short statement. Hussein took the opportunity to note that "Perhaps we have gone mad ... when 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi is tried on 12 counts for slapping a soldier enforcing a foreign occupation".

It is also worth noting that of the pages of themes presented at the session for discussion, two related to Syria and one to Yemen. Seven themes were listed for discussion that were critical of Israel.

The problem with the UN Human Rights Council was best expressed by Ambassador Aviva Raz Shechter, Israel's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, on Wednesday: "It's time to see the constant discrimination of Israel in this Council, by the resolutions that pass by an automatic majority, as stemming out of deeper reasons. Listen to the incitement in the Palestinian Territories, nurturing the younger generations with hatred and antisemitic feelings."

Governor-General Cosgrove did not isolate any particular country or highlight any one human rights violation in his address.

The Governor-General emphasised Australia's commitment to universal human rights, promoted our successful multicultural society, promised Australia would be a voice for small states, particularly Pacific Island nations, and emphasised Australia's support for transparency, openness and scrutiny.

In announcing the Governor-General's trip to Geneva, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, noted that "through our membership, Australia will deliver on its commitments to advance human rights globally." But this first address provided little detail as to what that would actually entail.

While it was certainly a lost opportunity for Australia to raise some serious contradictions within the UN Human Rights Council, Canada did step up to the plate.

In her speech, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland emphasised the "unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust" and strongly added: "Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. So I would like to be clear, Canada does not tolerate antisemitism, at any time, or in any forum."

While no similar statement was made in the Australian address, it is worth noting that Australia's speech may have been more anodyne than hoped because it was delivered by our politically neutral head of state, rather than a Government representative.

During its three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council, Australia must pursue tangible outcomes.

At a minimum, these outcomes need to include condemning antisemitism and ensuring the world focusses on the most egregious human rights abuses instead of spending inordinate amounts of time taking gratuitous pot shots at Israel, a liberal democracy with a highly respected and independent judiciary, whose human rights record is incomparably better than those of all of its neighbours.

Australia's membership should not just be seen as an exercise in prestige, it should be focussed on delivering practical outcomes for human rights - and that cannot occur as long as the human rights council is allowed to continue "business as usual" under current practices.

Given the Trump Administration has indicated it may withdraw altogether from the UN Human Rights Council over its unjust treatment of Israel, this is the least we can expect.

Since its establishment in 2006 - as a replacement for the equally biased UN Human Rights Commission - the Human Rights Council has singled out Israel time and again (for past AIJAC discussion of these problems with the UNHRC, see here, here and here.)

The body even has a unique and obviously discriminatory permanent agenda Item - Agenda Item 7 - which focuses solely on the "Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories." All other human rights problems in the world are considered under Agenda Item 4 - "Human rights situations that require the Council's attention".

According to Anne Bayefsky, currently the director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and Holocaust and a long-time UN watcher, "the Council plays a leading role in the demonization and delegitimisation of the Jewish state by the United Nations".

Writing in 2017, she noted that the Human Rights Council had condemned Israel more than any other UN member state. The tally at the time of writing was that Israel had been the subject of 78 resolutions or decisions of the Council. Syria [the next highest] had been the subject of fewer than half of that number (29).

"Think of it this way," Bayefsky wrote. "500,000 dead in Syria, forced starvation and mass torture in North Korea, systematic and lethal oppression in Iran, gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia and an elementary lack of basic freedoms affection over a billion in Russia and China. But at the UN Human Rights Council, little democratic Israel is the problem."

Speaking at this week's session, the United States' Acting Assistant Secretary of State Mary Catherine Phee concluded that reform is a long way off.

She told the session, "it is unacceptable that the Human Rights Council treats Israel differently from every other UN member."

Phee delivered a scathing rebuke of the Human Rights Council's institutional bias against the Jewish state.

"The charter itself says the UN organisation is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members. That is not the case when the special rapporteur's mandate on the Occupied Palestinian Territories - unlike every other Council mandate - never requires renewal. That is not the case when only one UN member state [Israel] has an entire agenda item dedicated to it."

This is the context in which the UN Human Rights Council is operating. As one of its newest members, Australia must work with other friends of Israel - and those who seek fairness and justice - to ensure the Council's focus is improving human rights for all, not Israel bashing and protecting dictatorships from real scrutiny.

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