Australia joins UNHRC: Can Canberra help catalyse badly needed UN reform?

UNHRC green-lights Goldstone II: The settlements

Australia has achieved a significant international win in being elected to join the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a three-year term starting in January 2018. Australia’s presence on the UNHRC will hopefully be a good influence on the Council, encouraging it to focus on the goals for which it was intended – the genuine promotion of agreed human rights. A media release from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated: “During our term on the Human Rights Council, we will focus on five key areas: gender equality, freedom of expression, good governance and robust democratic institutions, human rights for indigenous peoples and strong national human rights institutions.”

However, Australia may face great challenges in promoting these issues at the UNHRC, as the Council has long been marred by politicisation and undermined by the election of members who are serial human rights offenders, and not human rights advocates. For example, this year Congo, Afghanistan, Angola and Pakistan were also elected to the body, while Nigeria and Qatar won second terms (see here for summary of human rights violations by these countries). 

The credibility of the UNHRC has been undermined not only by the human rights abuses of its members but also by its obsessive anti-Israel agenda – as the Council disproportionately focuses on criticisms of Israel, which are used as a smokescreen to avoid discussing other human rights abuses including those of its elected members. According to the NGO UN Watch, “from its creation in June 2006 through June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council over one decade adopted 135 resolutions criticizing countries; 68 out of those 135 resolutions have been against Israel (more than 50%).”

Australia is also joining the UNHRC at a time when it and other UN agencies face renewed scrutiny for their hypocrisy and anti-Israel bias. The US has announced that it is reviewing its membership of the UNHRC and last week the US announced that it will withdraw from United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for reasons including its bias against Israel. On October 12, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley outlined the reasons for leaving UNESCO in the following statement:

“The purpose of UNESCO is a good one. Unfortunately, its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment. The Tomb of the Patriarchs decision was just the latest in a long line of foolish actions, which includes keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protestors. Just as we said in 1984 when President Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”

Israel was reportedly unaware of the US decision to leave until it was announced, but praised the US move and said that it too plans to withdraw from UNESCO in protest.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, “I welcome @realdonaldtrump’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO,” and also tweeted, “This is a courageous and ethical decision because UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd and instead of preserving history, distorts it.”

As previous blog posts have noted, while UNESCO has sponsored some positive initiatives, including education on the Holocaust and the protection of historical sites in Israel as well as elsewhere, UNESCO resolutions have also sought to undermine Israeli sovereignty and the Jewish connection to Judaism’s holy sites. For example, resolutions have sought to reclassify the Jewish holy sites of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount solely by their Muslim names of the Buraq Wall and al-Haram al-Sharif. As decisions are simply a numbers game, Israel and its supporters have often been outvoted by Arab and Muslim-majority member states and other states which automatically follow their lead.

The US previously left UNESCO under former President Ronald Reagan in 1984 because it viewed it as corrupt and a vehicle to promote Soviet interests. The US rejoined in 2003 but in 2011 the US under then President Barack Obama cut its funding to UNESCO by 22 percent to protest its decision to grant full membership to “Palestine”. The US now owes around US$550 million to UNESCO in back payments. The significant arrears are likely to have also played a part in the decision. The US withdrawal will take effect on December 31, 2018, but it will retain a permanent observer mission at UNESCO.

However, some supporters of Israel have been critical of the US and Israeli decision to leave UNESCO, especially given that a new Director General, Audrey Azoulay representing France, who is Jewish, has been appointed, with an agenda for restoring the credibility of UNESCO. Ms Azoulay defeated the Qatari frontrunner candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, as well as Egyptian and Chinese candidates. The Gulf Arab rift with Qatar is believed to have cost it votes, which enabled France’s candidate to win. After the result was announced, Ms Azoulay said: “In this moment of crisis, I believe we must invest in UNESCO more than ever, look to support and reinforce it, and to reform it. And not leave it.”

The decision to leave UNESCO may undermine the US’s and Israel’s ability to influence future resolutions and seek recognition of the Jewish connection to Jewish historical sites. For example, Seth Frantzman wrote in the Jerusalem Post:

“Instead of jettisoning UNESCO, Israel should renew its embrace of the organization and invite the new director for a tour of Israel’s incredible heritage sites. It should showcase how it preserves the architecture of the ‘White City of Tel Aviv’ and seek to aid other nations in preserving their urban landscapes. In so doing Israel will seem like a mature country seeking constructive dialogue, and the Palestinians’ attempt to erase Jewish history and politicize archaeology in places like Hebron would receive less applause at UNESCO. The US has made its strong point, now is the time to work to reform UNESCO and make it live up to its goals.”

Similarly, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is of the view that Australia should remain in UNESCO in order to “try to effect change from within the membership of UNESCO…” 

When Ms Bishop was asked if Australia believed UNESCO has an anti-Israel bias, she told Sky News:

“We have voted in accordance with that view on a number of occasions in UN forums and also within UNESCO, but we take each resolution on a case-by-case basis – we consider it, we think if it’s broadly applicable then we’ll support it, if we think it’s targeting Israel and is unfair and biased, we’ll vote against it…

The United States can send a very powerful message because its ability to withdraw funding will have a profound impact on UNESCO, but they do have a fair point that resolutions that target only Israel are not fair and not balanced and should not be supported.”

The US and Israeli decision to leave UNESCO has drawn attention to the need for urgent reform for UN agencies including the UNHRC. In the absence of the US and Israeli membership on UNESCO, Australia’s role as a positive influence on both UNESCO and the UNHRC, to attempt to refocus their agendas on their intended purposes of genuinely promoting human rights and preserving historical sites, respectively, will be more important than ever.

Sharyn Mittelman