Israel hopes May elections will change UN Human Rights Council

Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon "not optimistic," but sees vote as one of few possibilities for altering attitude towards Israel.

An opportunity to reform the United Nations' much criticized Human Rights Council could come this May when elections are held for one-third of its member countries, Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Yitzhak Levanon, told The Jerusalem Post this week. "I'm not optimistic," Levanon said, but he added that it was one of the few possibilities which existed for changing the attitude of the Human Rights Council when it came to Israel and making it a more effective vehicle to advocate for victims of injustice around the world. Israel and the US - neither of which are members of the 47-member body - were among those who predicted that the council, established in June, would likely be ineffective. "We foresaw the problems we have today," said Levanon. The council replaced the former Human Rights Commission, which was scrapped because it had a faulty membership composition and repeatedly singled out Israel. But Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a nonprofit group which monitors the UN in Geneva, told the Post that the new council also had a problematic composition and included nations that were not democracies and that held poor records on human rights. Among the nations which held membership seats on the new council were Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China, said Neuer. The African and Asian blocs in the council, each of which held 13 seats apiece, were dominated by non-democratic countries, said Neuer. In addition, he said, 17 of the countries in the council were members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. It was this composition, along with the ability of 16 members to call for a special session, which had been one of the factors that had helped the council focus almost exclusively on Israel. "You can get 16 votes [against Israel] in two or three minutes," said Levanon. "If you combine this with the wish of the Arabs and the Muslims to keep the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the table at all times, they can do it very consistently." He added: "The people who are against the State of Israel [in the council] always have the numbers" in their favor. In some instances, he said, even countries that had good bilateral relations with Israel, such as China and India, still voted against Israel in the council. "They have their own considerations regionally and multi-latterly," said Levanon. In the last six months the council has held three of its four special sessions on Israel and has issued eight anti-Israel resolutions, said Neuer. Israel remained the only country which the council has condemned, said Neuer. UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the council was under instruction from former secretary-general Kofi Annan to broaden its focus and not concentrate solely on Israel. He said he saw the council's vote on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur two weeks ago as a sign that such a shift was occurring. "The second point is that the secretary-general has encouraged them to look first and foremost at themselves," said Haq. He added that countries who were council members also had to undergo a periodic review of their own human rights records with an eye to making improvements. He said that it was too early in the process to truly assess the council's effectiveness. "There is a lot of hope riding on them," he said. But Levanon said that while he was pleased that the council had finally taken a stand on the Darfur genocide, where more than 200,000 people have died, he felt the language in the resolution was weaker than the wording of the anti-Israel resolutions and therefore did not reflect a change when it came to disproportionately singling out Israel. A situation like Darfur, with so many deaths, should warrant a much more urgent response from the council, Levanon said. "I am not pleased with the new council for human rights; it is worse than the old one," said Levanon. Still, he said, if there was hope for change, it would come in the May elections in which some countries that are council members would have to seek reelection or other countries from their region could replace them, Levanon said. Neuer added that it was unlikely that this council would be scrapped so that those who wanted change had to look for ways to work with it.