The UN Human Rights Council is likely to call for an arms embargo against Israel this year, just as it did last year.
The only difference will be that in 2020, the US was absent from the proceedings because former US president Donald Trump boycotted the council, severing ties in 2018.
US President Joe Biden’s decision to reverse that policy means that this March, when the cyclical accountability resolution that includes an arms embargo call is voted on, US officials can speak up on Israel’s behalf. They can also work more effectively behind the scenes with member states.
But their efforts are likely to yield at best a moral victory, given that Israel at the 47-member UNHRC, like all UN bodies, lacks the numerical support to halt a myriad of resolutions, often repeating ones that are leveled against it.
The UN as an organization has never found a formula that both allows for full democratic participation of all member states while at the same time protecting against undue bias.
Most of the UN bodies depend on democratic votes by its member states, and politics, rather than rights or facts, are often the most determinative factor. The fallacy of that system is often most glaring at the UNHRC in Geneva, where human-rights abusers sit as member states on the same international body tasked with tackling such violations.
So it is that China, which has forcibly imprisoned more than a million Uighur Muslims in camps, still has a seat on the UNHRC based on a UN General Assembly vote. Cuba and Venezuela also hold seats.
When it comes to Israel, the Palestinians have majority support. In instances where they don’t, the wishy-washy politics of many countries that prefer to abstain rather than take a stand allows for a disproportionate number of resolutions to be leveled against Israel.
This March, the UNHRC is expected to approve five such texts, more than on any other country. According to the NGO UN Watch, which monitors such resolutions, the council has approved condemnatory resolutions against Israel 90 times. But it has spoken out on Syria only 35 times and Iran just 10 times and has issued no resolution against China.
In the case of the Human Rights Council, the member states are mandated to discuss alleged Israeli human-rights abuses at every one of its three annual sessions under Agenda Item 7. That Agenda Item is always reserved for Israel. No such mandate is brought against any other country.
Israel is also the only country for which there is a special human-rights investigator, known as a special rapporteur, tasked with probing alleged human-rights abuses.
The Bush administration was skeptical of the council from the start, initially holding observer status and then cutting ties. US president Barack Obama believed he could effect change through engagement. But he was unable to eliminate Agenda Item 7, although Western states have increasingly refrained from participating in Agenda Item 7 debates.
While the US consistently voted with Israel when it held a seat on the council and spoke in support of the Jewish state when it was an observer, it was unable to stop its anti-Israeli activities.
This included the 2009 publication of the UNHRC’s Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes and possible war crimes for its actions in the first Gaza war from December 2008 to January 2009.
It also failed to halt the council in 2016 from calling for the creation of a black list of companies that do business with Israeli entities located over the pre-1967 lines in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. There is no similar data base for companies that engage with countries associated with human-rights abuses, including China and Iran.
When the Trump administration announced that it was exiting the UNHRC, citing in part anti-Israel bias, it sounded dramatic.
But the US absence also did not eliminate Agenda Item 7, nor did it change UNHRC behavior. During the last three years, the council has published the black list as well as a confidential file of Israel soldiers it believes could be culpable for war crimes for actions they committed against Palestinians during the violent Gaza border protests. These protests, known as the “Great March of Return,” lasted from March 2018 and until December 2019.
What was absent during those proceedings, however, was the strong US voice in support of Israel.
The seemingly intractable nature of the UN has created a split between those who believe participation in its proceedings legitimizes them and those who maintain that a loud voice is better than no voice at all.
THE DEBATE is particularly acute at the UNHRC because it is one of the few bodies that tackle global human rights. There are those who argue that the council must be legitimized to act against large-scale abusers of UN members through participation of UN member states, particularly ones that are outspoken advocates for human rights, such as the US.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of the UNHRC as a flawed body when he announced America’s return as an observing member. The US could only vote if it was elected by the UN General Assembly to one of the 47 seats that rotate every three years.
Both he and State Department spokesman Ned Price said the best chance to reform that body was through participation.
“The United States can be a constructive force: that we can help shape the course of world events,” Price said. “We can help shape international institutions when we’re present, when we’re at the table.
“We believe that the United States plays a constructive role on the council. When we play a constructive role in the council, in concert with our allies and partners, positive change is possible.”
This includes “a push for reform to address the council’s disproportionate bias against Israel,” he said.
British Ambassador to the US Karen Pierce welcomed that stance, tweeting, “Together, we can shine a spotlight on human rights abuses and promote fundamental freedoms around the globe.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, however, warned that reengaging with an unreformed UNHRC “lends credibility to a body with a reprehensible history of discrimination against Israel.”
The Trump administration believed that the council was so broken, it could not be reformed, and its existence simply lent credibility to the human-rights abusers who sat on it.
“The UN Human Rights Council doesn’t improve human rights,” former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tweeted. “It covers for dictators & human rights abusers like Russia, China, & Venezuela.”
But even the Trump administration walked a fine line with the UN on human rights. It participated in a review process by a committee of experts called the Universal Period Review, which every UN member state undergoes when its human-rights record is examined.
As a sign of the complexity of the situation, Israel also participates in that UPR and has not disengaged from the UNHRC, although it does boycott Agenda Item 7 debates.
The UN might be a flawed body, but it is the only international body.
Whether reform is best done from within or without, and whether the US offers Israel a supportive shoulder from within or without, only one thing is certain: The debate against Israel will continue.
Now it is Biden’s turn to attempt to show once more that engagement is a more successful strategy than disengagement.