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The UN, Human Rights and Israel

21 April 2009 By New Israel Fund

The follow-up World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) began this week in Geneva.   After failing to eliminate problematic language from the proposed final statement, the United States joined Canada, Israel and a host of other countries in boycotting the conference.  And, the opening day harangue by Iranian President Ahmadinejad made a mockery of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s efforts to avoid a repeat of the excesses that characterized the 2001 WCAR conference in Durban.

For many Jewish organizations, the WCAR conference reinforces a hostile perception of the United Nations’ role as a neutral protector of human rights.  As in many UN confabs, Israel will be singled out for criticism in a manner that turns on its head the principles and values that motivated the formation of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II.  And yet, I want to make a plea that those who care about both human rights and Israel should not write off the UN human rights system completely.

Next week, also in Geneva, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) will begin its 42nd session.  The CAT is a body of 10 independent experts, who monitor implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.   The CAT is currently chaired by Claudio Grossman, a Chilean national and the Dean of the Washington College of Law.  [Full disclosure – Dean Grossman has been a friend and colleague for more than 25 years, and has been a committed supporter of the NIF/WCL Israeli-US Civil Liberties Law Fellows partnership.]   Also currently serving on the CAT is US national Felice Gaer, a long-time human rights activist whom  I have also known since the mid-1980s.

As with many human rights conventions, the Anti-Torture Convention requires regular reporting by state parties on how rights are being implemented in their respective countries.   An initial report must be submitted within a year of accession to the Convention and every four years thereafter.  During the CAT’s formal sessions, government representatives respond to questions posed by committee members based on their review of the government submission or on “information” provided to the committee by interested non-governmental organizations.   At the end of the session, the CAT addresses its concerns and recommendations to the State party in the form of “concluding observations.”

Israel ratified the Convention in 1991.  At next week’s session, the CAT will review Israel’s fourth periodic submission(pdf document), which describes several recent legislative and judicial developments in the four years since the previous submission.   Several human rights organizations have submitted information for review by the CAT, including NIF grantees B’Tselem/HaMoked, Public Committee Against Torture, and Hotline for Migrant Workers/Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Law Clinic.  

At several levels, this UN process appears to be working.  Israel takes seriously its reporting requirements and submits substantive reports in a timely fashion.  Israeli NGOs, meanwhile, comment professionally on the contents of the report.  And while I have no doubt that some of the questions to the Israeli government representatives will be deemed provocative, I expect the Committee’s concluding observations to present serious concerns about Israel’s human rights performance while acknowledging positive steps that have been taken.  Hopefully, the Committee’s comments, and indeed the entire CAT process, will serve as an educational tool for the Israeli public to understand better the issues raised by specific Israeli policies, and how the UN can play a constructive role in encouraging better human rights performance by Israel. 

In a related vein, the appointment of Richard Goldstone to head the UN Inquiry into human rights violations during the recent Gaza conflict also should be viewed as a positive step.  Goldstone is a former UN war crimes prosecutor, who rose to prominence during the last days of the apartheid regime in South Africa, when he led an inquiry into political violence by all parties.  Before accepting the Gaza assignment, Goldstone insisted that his mandate be extended to include the actions of both Israel and the Palestinians.  (A task also taken seriously by the often-maligned Human Rights Watch, which has just published a report harshly critical of Hamas’ treatment of its own citizens in Gaza.)

While the task before him will not be an easy one, I am convinced that Goldstone is precisely the type of person who can transform what was conceived of as another Israel-bashing opportunity into a constructive review of core principles relating to the laws of war and humanitarian law.  Israel and the broader international community will have much to learn from the conclusions of the Goldstone-led inquiry.  Consequently, the Israeli government would make a serious mistake if it refuses to cooperate with the Goldstone team.

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