Who's Hurt by the UN Human Rights Council’s Israel Obsession? Not Least the Palestinians

The UN Human Rights Council’s negative hyper-focus on Israel hurts its credibility worldwide, but it causes far worse damage to the struggle for human rights in Israel itself.

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UN Sec.-Gen. Ban Ki-moon with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Oct. 20, 2015.
UN Sec.-Gen. Ban Ki-moon with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Oct. 20, 2015.Credit: AP

It is hard to find objective criteria that justify the record of condemnation of Israel by the United Nations. As of 2015 just one vociferous UN institution, the Human Rights Council, issued 62 condemnations of our country. Syria, the next most reprimanded state, faced 16.

There may be objective standards, clear criteria, that determine when to focus a resolution on the perceived dysfunctions of a specific country. These may apply to other countries, but regarding Israel they are unclear or in abeyance. 

This is not just an Israeli problem. The imbalance in the UNHRC, its negative hyper-focus on Israel, inflicts broad damage worldwide on the credibility of the human rights community and on the growth of international law. It also raises questions even among the Israeli mainstream about whether the UNHRC operates in good faith.  

One of the central tests for the legitimacy of law and decent governance that elevates it above the savagery of a chaotic world, is its equal application to all. The UNHRC does not seem to meet the test. This inequality, hurts the credibility of the human rights network of organizations, thereby hurting the international and local struggle for human rights. Paradoxically, it also hurts the ability to persuade honest people of the validity of legitimate criticisms of the Israeli State's shortcomings in the field of Human Rights.

Many see the UNHRC as a most senior international human rights institution. Its purpose is to express international consensus on the protection of human rights. When it works according to its mission, it can generate international human rights standards. As with any country, there are actions and policies of the State of Israel that merit criticism. We, in Rabbis for Human Rights regularly critique them. 

But when a premier human rights institution of the international community so often acts in ways that seem inexplicable to a fair-minded person, it hurts not just its own credibility, but the credibility of the community of human rights organizations internationally. Within Israel, it damages the struggle for human rights because that struggle becomes all too easily associated with the bigoted demonization of Israel and the Jewish people. I believe that human rights organizations find themselves tarred with the brush of UN dysfunction.

How to deal with this dysfunction? Several international organizations track and aggressively condemn the UN's negative hyper-focus on Israel. However, the bias continues. Dialogue would be the preferred path toward reform of the situation. But dialogue with the UN is not an easy task. Our experience testifies to the challenge. Rabbis for Human Rights has been trying to establish a discussion with the organization for months. Our first invitation received a perfunctory response. Despite our misgivings, we responded with another invitation to substantive dialogue, but received no response. Nor has any local representative of the UN followed up with us.

We believe it is time to go public with our invitation to dialogue. We bring to the table twenty-five years experience in playing a respected role in the struggle for human rights in this region. The failure of the UN to respond appropriately to this invitation to dialogue from a frontline Jewish/Israeli human rights organization speaks loudly. 

Therefore we have sent an open letter to UN secretary-General Ban-ki Moon where amongst the points mentioned above we make the following point:

Our task is to address Israeli society, and of course, we do not object to informed criticism of Israeli policies, but when the institutions of the International Community so profoundly line up in ways that are unacceptable to any fair-minded person, it is understandable that the discourse within our country becomes attenuated and difficult. That is our challenge. 

We respectfully suggest that the promulgation of equal, universal and universally applied criteria of intervention is a primary responsibility of the family of nations. We suggest to Mr. Ban: "You can play a key role in bringing that about by taking action to call the UNHRC to order."

We look forward to constructive, values-based, respectful discussion. This can help all parties better to fill our moral tasks, which we see as the divine imperative to fix what is broken in the world God created. 

Dr. Edward Rettig is an ordained Reform rabbi and a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights, and formerly directed the Israel/Middle East Office of the AJC. Follow him on Twitter: @edrettig

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