“Piracy,” “act of aggression,” “brutal massacre,” “atrocious act,” “war crime,” “unprovoked,” “unwarranted,” “murderous attacks,” “act of terrorism,” “crime against humanity” and “violation of international law” were some of the terms used by HRC envoys to describe Monday’s pre-dawn interception at sea.
The pro-Palestinian activists onboard the ships were characterized as “peaceful,” “innocent,” “noble,” “unarmed” and “defenseless.”
Nine activists onboard one of six vessels trying to break the blockade of Gaza, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, were killed during a clash with Israeli troops who boarded the ships in international waters.
Israel says the boarding party acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists wielding iron bars and other weapons (see video). Flotilla organizers and cruise participants have contested the claims.
At the request of Islamic and Arab member-states, the Geneva-based HRC interrupted the scheduled program of its regular month-long session Tuesday to hold an “urgent debate” on the incident.
Dozens of HRC members weighed in with strong criticism, as did a number of countries not currently on the council, including Vietnam, Syria, Laos and Belarus.
It demanded that Israel “lift the siege on occupied Gaza.” (Israel withdrew from all of Gaza in 2005. Two years later Hamas seized control of the territory after armed clashes with Fatah, the faction of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.)
The resolution said that an “independent international fact-finding mission” would be dispatched to investigate “violations of international law” and report back to the council during its next regular session, in the fall.
After the United States called for a vote, the resolution passed by 32 votes to three, with the U.S., Italy and the Netherlands voting against. Nine members (six in Europe, plus Japan, South Korea and Burkina Faso) abstained.
“We regret having to call a vote and vote no on this resolution,” said U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe. “It is our hope that, over time, this council will be able to unite around balanced and appropriate responses to urgent situations that deserve our attention.”
“Unfortunately the resolution before us rushes to judgment on a set of facts that, as our debate over the last day makes clear, are only beginning to be discovered and understood.”
Nicaragua’s envoy Carlos Robelo Raffone after the vote criticized the U.S. stance.
“[The Americans say they] don’t wish to have a Human Rights Council that is politicized but in fact they are the very first not to remove politics from this council,” he said.
‘Positive and constructive’
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-government organization, said the HRC resolution “applied the same upside-down formula” that was used when the council established its previous fact-finding mission, the 2009 Goldstone inquiry into Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
“First, Israel was declared guilty – this time, of an ‘outrageous attack’ – and only afterward was an inquiry created to collect the facts.”
By doing so, he said, it violated “the fundamental principles of natural justice, common sense, as well the U.N.’s own Declaration on Fact Finding, which requires objectivity and impartiality.”
The Obama administration joined the HRC last year after its predecessor had shunned it, critical of its politicization, the presence of members with poor human rights records, and a disproportionate focus on Israel. (Of a total of 58 country-specific resolutions passed by the HRC, 29 – 50 percent – relate to Israel, according to data kept by Eye on the U.N.)
Administration officials from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton down have acknowledged that the body is “flawed” but argue that the U.S. can work to improve it most effectively from within.
Asked Wednesday whether the administration has seen any improvement since joining, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said “we think our presence on the council is positive and constructive.”
“We are willing to work constructively with countries around the world on the most urgent issues that face us all,” he said. “But we understand that there’ll be times where our view may carry the day, and there’ll be times where other countries have different points of view.”
Close observers of the U.N. body are critical of the influence wielded by the Islamic bloc, which is strongly represented because more than half of the council’s 47 seats are earmarked for countries in Asia and Africa.
The OIC – which after elections last month has 18 members in the council – customarily votes as a bloc, joined by non-Muslim allies including China, Russia and Cuba.
No country opposed call for ‘urgent debate’
This week’s “urgent debate” is believed to be the first of its kind in the council’s four-year history.
In the past, “special sessions” have been called to deal with situations deemed urgent. Holding one requires the support of at least one-third of the total membership.
Of 13 special sessions held since mid-2006, 10 dealt with country-specific situations – and of those 10, six focused on Israel.
HRC spokeswoman Claire Kaplun said Wednesday that the “urgent debate” was called at the request of Pakistan and Sudan under the agenda’s “program of work.”
Because the “program of work” is decided upon and approved by the council, any decision to change it is the council’s prerogative, she explained.
Had any member opposed the request, it would have been voted on. “In this particular case, no state did oppose the holding of this urgent debate.”
Kaplun said the HRC was empowered under its founding resolution to “address situations of violations of human rights.”
“The council has always been concerned about being in a position to react quickly to any situation of emergency which may occur,” she added.