Israeli adviser to Human Rights Committee seeks the positive, fights the negative

During his time on the committee, Shany has seen countries enact “very weird claims [that] push the borders of logic.”

October 9, 2017 03:11
3 minute read.
Israeli adviser to Human Rights Committee seeks the positive, fights the negative

Overview of the United Nations Human Rights Council is seen in Geneva, Switzerland June 6, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Although the UN Human Rights Council’s focus on Israel has damaged its legitimacy, the organization has done some positive work, according to Yuval Shany, a legal adviser to the UN Human Rights Committee.

“It does help give attention to Syria. There is a big investigation that is very activist in exposing information about the Syria situation. It always keeps up the political pressure about the regime’s actions,” said Shany, a former Hebrew University Law School Dean and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

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He also complimented the council for getting Sri Lanka to address violations by enacting political reforms.

The UN committee is a body of 18 experts that meets three times a year for four-week sessions to consider the five-yearly reports submitted by 169 UN member states on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Dealing with grave international problems on the Committee helps Shany put Israel’s issues into perspective.

“There are many places much worse than Israel. Much worse,” he said.

The comparative perspective, he added, also shows Israel’s uniqueness.

“The situation in the territories is very unique. It is hard to find an analogy of a country ruling an area for so long whose status is undecided and with an interim situation that goes on for decades and impacts millions of people.”

During his time on the committee, Shany has seen countries enact “very weird claims [that] push the borders of logic.”

He gave an example of Belarus, which has signed on to many conventions that require it to respond to many complaints about human rights violations. To help it get around complying, Belarus, according to Shany, has instituted a series of “outrageous procedural obstacles.”

In Belarus, he said, “only an individual can file a complaint, not a lawyer. How do you make a claim against someone who killed you?...[Belarus] cannot claim that only a dead person can file a complaint!” Belarus is not the only country that tries to use the law cynically, he noted.

“Lots of times, states have proper and complex interests and need to find a balance, but sometimes their defenses are just formalist and outrageous,” he said.

Shany takes pride in achievements regarding the provision of detailed guidance on the right to life, which he hopes will cause states to better defend people’s lives.

Moreover, he was involved in reforms to make the process for handling human rights claims faster, more efficient and more public.

Asked whether his work has impacted Israel, Shany said: “There are very few Israelis in UN mechanisms in the area of human rights.”

He added that he is trying to help Israeli students apply for UN positions and to create greater awareness among Israelis of UN opportunities to increase their representation.

“It is very important that Israelis work more in international organizations and for sure in human rights. There are not results yet, it is a very long process. But I succeeded in exposing students, and some will try,” he said.

Asked whether he was treated oddly at the UN because he’s Israeli, Shany said that when he helped run human rights oversight hearings for Iraq and Kuwait he “tried not to take big positions, but I did ask questions that could have caused them problems.”

When the discussions were over, he said he shook hands with the representatives of those countries.

“They also understand that I am there as an expert and not to represent Israel,” he said, adding that his Israeli identity did come up during the 2014 Gaza war when he happened to be at work in Geneva with the UN’s internal Human Rights Committee system when the war started and his family was in a bomb shelter.

He also noted that the Foreign Ministry fought hard to get him chosen for a second term.

“They realize it is important have Israelis in these forums even though I do not identify with the government or its policies.”

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