The United Nations Human Rights Council was crafted to replace the UN's thoroughly discredited Commission on Human Rights. Unfortunately, five months after its inaugural meeting, the reconstituted council looks and acts suspiciously like the old body, with a membership that includes such notorious rights abusers as Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia and a singular obsession with the alleged misdeeds of one small country, namely Israel.
This is not a new phenomenon. Israel has been a favourite whipping boy of the UN for years. Witness the outburst of Louise Arbour, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, who formed an instant opinion of Israeli policies upon her arrival this week in northern Gaza, declaring: "The violation of human rights I think in this territory is massive." It's important for the UN's top human-rights watchdog to see for herself what's happening on the ground, rather than rely on reports from officials, but it's equally important to gather all the facts before making pronouncements. It's one thing to express sympathy for families shattered by tragedies, and quite another to determine on the spot that grievous violations of human rights occurred.
At least the former Supreme Court of Canada judge also visited southern Israel and recognized the residents' "sense of vulnerability and despair." Not so the rights council. Since its formation, it has held three special sessions, all of them focused on Israel. Forget about the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, the calamities in places such as Chad and Uganda or the systematic trampling of individual rights in Iran, Myanmar, China, Uzbekistan, Belarus and a host of other countries. This council, like its predecessor, ignores the flagrant breaches of international law committed by Hamas, Hezbollah and other state-sponsored terrorist groups, serving instead as a tool for the criticism of Israel and its policies.
How does that happen? To call a special session requires approval by at least a third of the council's 47 members. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has 17 of the members, so they can turn the council toward Israel-bashing pretty much at will. When they combine with other Third World members, they caneasily outmanoeuvre Canada, Britain, Japan and other countries on the council that would rather broaden the body'sfocus.
On Tuesday, an investigation triggered by the Islamic lobby condemned Israel for the attacks on Lebanese civilians that occurred during its war with Hezbollah this past summer. The report found a pattern of "excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force." And what of Hezbollah's egregious use of civilians as cover for its illegal rocket attacks against Israel, as well as other rights violations that triggered the war? Barely a word, because the inquiry had no instructions to look at the actions of Hezbollah or any other participant in the conflict, apart from the Israeli military.
Last week, the council ended a special session by expressing concern over "the continued violation by the occupying power, Israel, of the human rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territory." The council, displaying its obvious bias, was referring to northern Gaza. But it did not mention that Israel had withdrawn from all of Gaza and sent troops back over the border only in response to the rocket attacks on Israeli communities. In July, the council accused Israel of breaching international humanitarian law in the West Bank and Gaza through its efforts to stop the indiscriminate attacks on its territory. In September, without waiting for the inquiry findings, it accused Israel of abusing rights during its fighting with Hezbollah.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had lobbied hard to give the new council real teeth as an impartial rights arbiter, betrayed his frustration this week with its one-sided focus on the Middle East and its paralysis on human-rights catastrophes occurring elsewhere in the world. Members, he noted, "have tended to focus on the Palestinian issue. And of course if you focus on the Palestinian-Israeli issue without even discussing Darfur and other issues, some wonder: What is this council doing?" Indeed.
Israeli policies that imperil civilian lives are fair game for human-rights panels, provided they are examined impartially and within the context of the country's right under international law to defend itself. But they should not be the only game. Warren Tichenor, the U.S. ambassador to the UN in Geneva, rightly called the council's obsessive focus on Israel a waste of limited resources in pursuit of a subject that does not fall specifically under its UN mandate. Why, he asked, "is the council loath to address important human-rights situations elsewhere such as Sudan?"
When he opened the council's first session last June, a more hopeful Mr. Annan called for "a clean break from the past." Instead, the reformed council bears a remarkable similarity to the body it replaced, pandering to the anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments of a majority of members, coddling those with lousy human-rights records and deliberately avoiding cases of major rights violations that certain influential members find politically unpalatable to tackle.