France is seeking to weaken the veto power it and the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council hold when the issue being discussed is “mass atrocities.”
It also plans to convene a high-level ministerial meeting on the subject in New York on September 25.
The French initiative, which is already a year old, calls for the five countries – France, the US, Russia, China and the UK – to adopt a code of conduct in which they would voluntarily suspend their veto power with respect to resolutions on mass crimes.
France has not used its veto power in the Security Council in over two decades. It is pushing the issue forward out of frustration over the way vetoes have been used, particularly by Russia and China, to stymie Security Council actions with regard to the ongoing civil war in Syria.
On Monday, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, said he supported the French initiative when he delivered his first report to the UN Human Rights Council after taking office at the start of this month. He replaced South Africa’s Navi Pillay.
“This is not a call to have the UN Charter rewritten, but a call for the permanent members to exercise a moratorium in very specific circumstances involving atrocity crimes,” Hussein said. “When the veto is exercised for the sole purpose of blocking action by the Security Council, with no alternative course of action offered, and when people are suffering so grievously, that is also a form of cruelty.”
During his first address in Geneva, which opened the Human Rights Council’s 27th session, which will last for the next three weeks, Hussein touched on human rights issues around the globe, including Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.
Although he spoke harshly against Israel, its conflict with the Palestinians was not his top priority when it came to regional violence.
“From a human rights perspective it is clear that the immediate and urgent priority of the international community should be to halt the increasingly conjoined conflicts in Iraq and Syria,” he stated. “The latest report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic brings fresh evidence that this ancient civilization has devolved into a slaughterhouse, where children are tortured in front of their parents or executed in public, amid wanton killing and destruction.”
The high commissioner for human rights explained that according to the UN, more than 190,000 people had been killed in Syria between March 2011 and April of this year. Three million Syrians have fled the country and another 6.5 million are internally displaced.
Moving to Iraq, Hussein said that violence perpetrated by Islamic State was unprecedented in recent times and that its killing of journalists and other captives was barbaric. Any state run by that group “would be a harsh, mean-spirited, house of blood where no shade would be offered nor shelter given to any non-Takfiri in their midst,” he said, using the Arabic word for a Muslim who will not accuse another Muslim of apostasy.
In his new role, he said, he wanted to ensure “accountability for gross violations of human rights and other international crimes.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hussein said, was an example of a situation where “persistent discrimination and impunity” must come to an end, particularly in light of the armed conflict in the Gaza Strip this summer.
“As of last week, preliminary estimates are that 2,131 Palestinians had been killed during the latest crisis in Gaza, including 1,473 civilians, 501 of them children,” he said. He added that 71 Israelis, including four civilians, had also been killed.
Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem have a right to live normal lives of dignity, he continued, speaking against settlements, excessive use of force, the Gaza blockade and the security barrier in Judea and Samaria.
“There must be effective accountability for transgressions committed by all parties,” he said. “On this point I note that Israelis have a right to live free and secure from indiscriminate rocket fire. It is also imperative that all parties to the conflict in Gaza fully comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law.”
In addition, Hussein called on both Israel and the Palestinians to work with the Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry into this summer’s Gaza fighting. The panel has already begun its work and is expected to produce a report by March 2015.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of the non-governmental group UN Watch, criticized Hussein for his remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Dangerously, Prince Zeid falsely played the race card by framing the conflict as one of ‘persistent discrimination,’ echoing the anti-Israel canard promoted at the UN’s Durban conference, whose declarations are actively promoted by the UN rights office as a core part of their work,” Neuer said.