May 2, 2023 | Justin Amler
The ugly history of the UNHRC’s Special Rapporteurs
In 1993, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) created the “Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories” post, to investigate and report on the “human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
The UNCHR was a body created in 1946 in the wake of WWII as the UN’s principal body devoted to the “promotion and protection of human rights.”
However, as is common at the UN, it became politicised and ineffective, dominated by human rights violators, thus becoming increasingly discredited among both activists and major governments. Finally, in 2006, it was officially disbanded, and replaced by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) – which has also become politicised and ineffective, and equally dominated by serious human rights violators and their sympathisers.
The human rights violators that dominated these bodies turned both the UNCHR and the UNHRC into non-stop Israel-bashing forums, to the neglect of almost all other human rights issues. As the AIR has previously reported, in every year of the Council’s existence, no matter what is happening across the globe, Israel has been subjected to more critical resolutions and other forms of negative scrutiny at the UNHRC than any other country. Over the years, Israel has been condemned more than all other countries in the world combined.
Staff and “experts” employed by the UNHRC have, unsurprisingly, largely been people who share the Council’s extreme anti-Israel obsessions.
A recent example is Craig Mokhiber, who heads the New York section of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which oversees the UNHRC. In March 2023, his personal and extreme antagonism toward the Jewish state was very publicly exposed when his tweets were published, showing he supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and accused Israel of “apartheid”, “ethnic cleansing”, “race-based slaughter” and committing an “ongoing genocide”.
He even accused the global media of hiding “endless atrocities committed against Palestinian civilians.” And he openly campaigns against the widely accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, calling it a “politicised and cynically instrumentalised ‘definition’” – even though the definition has been endorsed by his boss, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as the then-UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed.
So, given the obsessions of both the UNHRC as a body and its staff, it is not at all surprising that the position of “Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories” has been linked to one scandal after another, with virtually every occupant of the post becoming associated with anti-Israel extremism and, often, antisemitism.
Current Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese
The current Special Rapporteur is Italian academic Francesca Albanese. Like Mokhiber, she was embroiled in an international scandal in December 2022 when her social media history was exposed as including a multitude of disturbing, and even antisemitic posts. In 2014, she posted that America is “subjugated by the Jewish lobby,” while Europe is subjugated “by the sense of guilt about the Holocaust.” Another post stated, “[t]he Israeli lobby is clearly inside [the BBC’s] veins…”
For these claims, she was condemned by the US government, US antisemitism monitor Deborah Lipstadt, by members of the European Parliament and US Congress, and many others.
After these posts were revealed, she initially acknowledged the comments were a “mistake”. However, she then released another statement backtracking, saying her comments were “wrongly mischaracterized as antisemitic” and criticism of them amounted to a “yet another malicious attack” against her mandate.
Earlier, it was shown she had repeatedly compared Israel to Nazi Germany – including endorsing a post by her husband, Massimiliano Calì, equating Palestinian terrorists with Jews resisting the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto (she also neglected to disclose when applying to be “Special Rapporteur” that her husband was previously employed by the Palestinian Authority), called Israel an Apartheid state repeatedly, said Israel was conducting a “slow genocide” of Palestinians and expressed her “dream” to have Hamas removed from the list of terrorist organisations.
Her extremism has also come through very clearly in her behaviour since taking up the role of Special Rapporteur. Most recently, following two terror attacks on April 7, in which Palestinian gunmen murdered Israeli-British teenagers Rina and Maia Dee, along with their mother, Lea, and an Arab Israeli rammed his car into a Tel Aviv crowd, killing Italian tourist Alessandro Parini, Albanese tweeted the following: “Israel has the right to defend itself, but can’t claim it when it comes to the people it oppresses/whose lands it colonizes.”
That’s right – she argued that Israel has no right to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism, because the Palestinians are people Israel “oppresses”. In essence, she effectively endorsed and encouraged violent “resistance”, aka terrorism, by Palestinians by saying Israel had no right to defend itself against this.
Earlier, she had used her role to:
Address a Hamas conference in Gaza in Nov. 2022, and effectively support anti-Israel violence, telling it that “You have a right to resist this occupation… Israel says ‘resistance equals terrorism,’ but an occupation requires violence and generates violence.”
Defend Miloon Kothari, a member of the UN Human Rights Council’s anti-Israel ‘Commission of Inquiry’, who said social media is “controlled largely by the Jewish Lobby,” and insisting he was the target of a “smear campaign”.
Blame Israel for a Palestinian terror attack that killed seven civilians. When asked if she condemned a terror attack in February that killed seven civilians, including a 14-year-old, outside a Jerusalem synagogue, she replied, “the brutal colonial occupation Israel maintains over the Palestinians (an apartheid regime by default) continues to traumatize millions of people, pushing them into hopelessness & despair, including kids.”
Like Mokhiber, repeatedly denounce the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
A “Special Rapporteur” like no other
Far from being an exception, these constant demonstrations of anti-Israel bias, mixed in with anti-Jewish tropes, have very much been part and parcel of the Special Rapporteur position from its inception, as we will see below when we discuss Albanese’s predecessors.
It is clear that this particular role was designed to be used as a springboard for UNHRC attacks against the Jewish state. Even its very name of ‘Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian Territories’ implicitly adopts the false Palestinian narrative of Israel illegally occupying “Palestinian land”. Palestinians may wish to lay claim to areas they want for a future state, but that is very different to being a once sovereign state under occupation by another sovereign state. Palestine, as an independent Arab state, has of course never existed.
But the problem goes way beyond the position’s title – it centres on the entire construction of the position‘s mandate.
Unlike the UNHRC’s 58 other Special Rapporteurs, who are assigned to specific countries with the task of overseeing activities and improving the human rights in those designated countries for a specific period of time, the Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories is the only one assigned to a non-state to criticise a member state – with no set time limit.
Its mandate is to: “Investigate Israel’s alleged violations of the principles of international law and international humanitarian law.”
In other words, it is to investigate alleged Israeli transgressions alone, and there is no mandate to look at crimes by Palestinians, either against Israelis, such as terrorism or rocket attacks, or against Palestinian civilians. This is one reason why neither the PA nor Hamas have ever been condemned by UNHRC – while Israel is condemned constantly.
Another unique feature of this farcical mandate is that the Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories is scheduled to continue “until the end of the Israeli occupation.” Apparently, its mandate will only end when Israel withdraws from all disputed territories.
The practical effect is that, unlike all other Special Rapporteur positions, there is no end-date for this role.
Overall, the mandate of this role is a violation of the UN Charter, which calls for neutrality and the equal treatment of all nations.
While all UN Special Rapporteurs are theoretically supposed to display “impartiality and objectivity”, it is clear that the holders of this particular role are not allowed to do so, even if they want to (as the first Special Rapporteur René Felber discovered, see below).
Just like the infamous and similarly unprecedented UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory created by the UNHRC in 2021, this Special Rapporteur role is designed to be a perpetual witch-hunt against Israel.
René Felber, from Switzerland, was appointed in 1993 as the first “Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian Territories” – but he resigned in 1995 after renouncing his mandate. Felber said he believed that it was better to support the peace process rather than condemn the parties because this would promote respect for basic freedoms.
He wanted to document human rights issues on both sides, but this attempt at some kind of even-handed approach led to him coming under fire from human rights groups, including the International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International.
Unfortunately, his call for reconsideration of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur to look at both sides was not supported by any future holders of the role – who all fully embraced and lived up to its mandate calling for completely one-sided reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
South African John Dugard, who served as Special Rapporteur from 2001 to 2008, said Israel was worse than apartheid South Africa, stating that Israel’s policies were “beyond the scope of apartheid law.”
In one UN report, he stated that “Israel’s defiance of international law poses a threat not only to the international legal order but to the international order itself,” and this was “no time for appeasement on the part of the international community.”
Dugard was replaced by a notorious anti-Israel agitator, American academic Richard Falk, who served from 2008 until 2014.
Before, during and after his tenure, Falk was known for his incendiary denunciations of Israel, including repeated statements comparing Israel and Israeli defence measures to Nazi atrocities.
He even wrote an article in December 2013 that said Israel was “slouching toward nothing less than a Palestinian holocaust.” This led to US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki calling on him to resign, saying: “We do not support his mandate or his work, which has been one-sided and biased, nor do we believe he should continue to serve as independent UN rapporteur.”
Falk also posted a blatantly antisemitic cartoon on his personal blog, which led to denunciation by not only the US and UK governments, but also the UN Secretary-General.
Falk’s successor, Indonesia’s Makarim Wibisono, also easily failed the UN’s objectivity test, as evidenced by his statements, including denouncing Israel’s supposed “unconscionable use of force against the Palestinians,” “untenable acts of aggression,” and supposed “policy of retribution against the entire Palestinian nation.”
He also accused Israel of being “the aggressor and the perpetrator of wanton violence.” He described Israel’s continuing defensive battle against rocket and other terrorist attacks from Gaza as a “flimsy pretext” for attacks on Palestinians.
Wibisono also openly embraced what he called the “sacred Palestinian cause”.
After Wibisono departed, Michael Lynk from Canada was appointed to the role and continued in the same spirit.
Lynk had a long history of involvement with anti-Israel events, including speaking to at least 11 events with BDS activists and other NGOs that are part of the campaign to delegitimise Israel.
He consistently dismissed Israel’s security concerns, claiming that Hamas and Hezbollah pose “no real threat to Israel.”
Lynk even praised Manal Tamimi, a virulently antisemitic activist who said, “Vampire Zionists… drink Palestinian blood” and called on people to rise up and kill “all these Zionist settlers everywhere.” Lynk called Tamimi “a “human rights defender”.
Lynk referred to Israel as a “covetous alien power” that must “abandon the fever-dream of settler-colonialism and recognise the freedom of the indigenous people.”
Finally, that brings us to incumbent Albanese, who, since taking office in May 2022, has, as already noted, created scandal after scandal with her extremism.
It is clear that from the very beginning, the “Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian Territories” role has been special indeed – but only because it is a politically motivated position created by an organisation dominated by some of the world’s worst human rights violators to continue their anti-Israel crusade.
In any reasonable body, the individuals involved, with their naked and unhinged hostility towards the Jewish state, and often open antisemitism, would never even be considered for such a role. But such is the obsessive bias against Israel in the UNHRC that it is their very extremism that made them the perfect choice.