The Double Standards in the Council’s Treatment of Country Situations

by Elizabeth Cassidy

Our criticism of the Human Rights Council’s eight resolutions against Israel is not to say that Israel’s human rights record should be immune from criticism. To the contrary, Israel should be held accountable for its human rights abuses, as should every other UN member state. The problem is that at the Council, Israel is not treated like any other UN member state. Comparing the Council’s approach on Israel to its approach on Sudan, the only other country that it addressed publicly in 2006, illustrates the point.

After widespread criticism of the exclusive focus on Israel of its first five months, including from then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan and major human rights groups, the Council finally addressed the crisis in Darfur, Sudan in late November. (By this point, it had held three special sessions and adopted six resolutions against Israel, and none on any other country.) The result? The adoption of a non-condemnatory, African Group-sponsored text, which Canada and the 10 European democracies voted against on the grounds that it was too weak.

Canada and the EU members tried to add language to the African Group draft that, while still not condemning the government of Sudan for human rights violations in Darfur, would at least have emphasized its “primary obligation . . . to protect all individuals against violations.” This change, however, was rejected in a close vote. This time, Argentina, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay joined the usual democratic alliance in supporting the stronger measure, but the democracies still lost.

In response to more public criticism, this time for the November resolution’s soft approach toward Khartoum, the Council convened a mid-December special session on Darfur, initiated by Canada and Europe. But knowing that a strong measure would lose in a vote, the democracies had to settle for a compromise text acceptable to the Islamic, African, and Asian groups. As a result, the brief, 6 paragraph resolution was again non-condemnatory, merely expressing “concern regarding the seriousness of the human rights and humanitarian situation” without giving any specifics, and urging “all parties” to sign and implement the Darfur peace agreement. (The Canadians and Europeans wanted to express “grave concern,” but even that was too strong for Sudan’s defenders.) The well-documented facts as to the ongoing atrocities in Darfur and Khartoum’s involvement in them—including evidence presented to the Council by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office of the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, humanitarian NGOs, and Darfur victims themselves—were completely ignored.

In fact, the word “violation” does not appear in the Darfur resolution at all. The OIC even rejected a Canadian and European proposal that the resolution’s introduction should refer generally to the Council’s power to address situations of human rights violations (using language taken verbatim from its founding resolution), because that would have “prejudged” Sudan.

By contrast, consider an example of a Council resolution against Israel: the one from the second special session, in August, on “the grave situation of human rights in Lebanon caused by Israeli military operations.” This OIC-sponsored text, which runs to 29 paragraphs, cited Israel for a long list of “gross and systematic,” “massive,” “grave,” and “flagrant” “violations of the human rights of the Lebanese people” and “breach[es] of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and international humanitarian law.” These include “the massacre of thousands of civilians, injuries, extensive damage to civilian infrastructure, displacement of one million people,” “indiscriminate and massive Israeli air strikes,” “environmental degradation,” “adverse impact on health,” “targeting of the communication and media networks,” and “continuing senseless killings by Israel, with impunity, of children, women the elderly and other civilians.”

The Israel/Hezbollah war undisputedly had terrible human rights and humanitarian consequences, but they were not caused only by Israel or suffered only by the Lebanese. Yet the resolution makes no mention of any action or violation by Hezbollah or its sponsors, or of the deaths, injuries, destruction of property, and displacement of Israelis. Canada, Japan and 9 European members opposed this unbalanced approach, and some other democracies abstained, but the resolution still passed—prompting a chorus of criticism of the Council’s one-sidedness from major international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, and Human Rights First.

As long as the Council’s majority continues to repeatedly condemn only Israel, while protecting or ignoring everyone else, the Council will lack credibility. So far, the Council has one-sidedly censured Israel over and over; it has addressed Sudan, but only reluctantly and without any criticism; and it has ignored every other country situation, including such egregious cases of repression and abuse as Burma, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Zimbabwe, to name just a few. This is not a very good start.

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