Groups Mostly Mum About U.N. Council

By Marc Perelman

Published March 10, 2006, issue of March 10, 2006.
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For years, Israel and its supporters have denounced the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as a sham and an annual anti-Israel slugfest. But now they are mostly keeping quiet regarding the furious debate over efforts to replace the commission. The debate has broken out between the Bush administration on the one hand, and a majority of countries and leading human rights groups on the other.

Israeli officials and Jewish groups were delighted when world leaders decided during a summit on the issue at last September’s United Nations General Assembly to replace the commission with a new Human Rights Council. Now, however, the effort appears stalled, as Bush administration officials argue that the membership criteria for the new body enshrined in a draft proposal are not stringent enough. A major complaint about the existing commission is that it includes several of the world’s worst human rights abusers, such as Zimbabwe and Sudan.

The fight puts Israel and Jewish groups in an awkward position: They feel that the new body — even in an imperfect form — would be an improvement, but they do not want to be seen as opposing the White House.

“Israel understands the new body as proposed would be a significant improvement; they are torn because there is pressure from the U.S.,” a U.N. official said, on condition of anonymity.

While some Jewish groups have sided with Washington, the main ones have not taken a stance on the proposed human rights council. Neither has the Israeli mission to the U.N., which did not respond to queries for comment.

Diplomats are working feverishly to find a compromise on the draft put forth by the president of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, that could be put to a vote before the existing commission begins its annual session in Geneva on March 13.

Shortly after the draft was disclosed, America’s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, announced that the United States would vote against it unless it was renegotiated on several key points, including the membership criteria.

Washington called for a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly to appoint new members to the council, and for states that are under U.N. sanctions for rights violations to be excluded. Instead, the proposal opens membership to all member states and sets voting criteria at a majority of the 191 members. The proposal would require a two-thirds majority vote to kick a member off the council, thus making it harder to expel a country where egregious violations occur.

Some Jewish groups, including American Jewish Committee affiliate U.N. Watch, have criticized the membership criteria.

However, diplomats noted that the draft would eliminate some key anti-Israel features of the existing commission — most notably a special agenda item dedicated solely to Israel — and ensure that no country would escape scrutiny. Still, some Jewish observers noted that Israel nevertheless could come under special scrutiny, since the new body will determine its agenda and can conduct country-specific examinations.

“We need improved membership, and we also need more U.S. engagement on human rights,” said Felice Gaer, director of the AJCommittee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute of Human Rights.

The proposal also reduces membership to 47 countries from 53 (the United States wanted 30) and requires the council to meet for at least 10 weeks a year instead of the current six weeks.

Changes to regional distribution of seats will benefit developing nations, as well, with Africa and Asia together accounting for more than 55% of members, while Western nations’ representation falls to below 15%.

While the European Union, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and human rights advocates also supported America’s two-thirds criterion for membership, they eventually signed off on the proposed draft.

“It is the best we can get, and if we go back at the drawing board,” said the U.N. official who spoke to the Forward, “we risk losing everything.”

More broadly, U.N. and Western diplomats, as well as outside observers, criticized the Bush administration’s lack of clear engagement during the five months of negotiations over the council.

“If the U.S. had really wanted to get the two-thirds majority, we might have gotten it,” the U.N. official said. The official suggested that the administration’s approach could be attributed to its concern that the new body might take up the issue of America’s treatment of prisoners, or its practice of sending prisoners to countries where the authorities are believed to practice torture.

A Western diplomat concurred with this view. “They seem to have played a double game, because they did not actively participate in the negotiations, and then they come out against it,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “It feels like this is what they wanted.”

The diplomat said that a compromise could entail concessions to American demands on other reforms at the U.N., most notably streamlining of the world body’s antiquated management structure.

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