U.N. Human Rights Council Set to Retain Its Obsessive Focus on Israel

Patrick Goodenough | March 1, 2011 | 4:37am EST
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on February 28, 2011. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday that it “cannot continue to single out and devote disproportionate attention to any one country.” However, a five-year review of how the council functions is set to reaffirm that Israel will remain the only country subject to a permanent agenda item.

The Obama administration has long argued that the Israel-centric agenda item should be abolished, and continued to do so during a series of “working group” negotiations on the council review, held in recent weeks.

Nonetheless, on February 24, the working group adopted a report that leaves the agenda item untouched. Although the U.S. registered its disapproval, the month-long session of the HRC that began in Geneva on Monday is set to endorse the report before sending it to the U.N. General Assembly for final approval.

Doing so means that the council will begin its second five years with its skewed attention on Israel intact.

The administration has made its membership of the HRC a centerpiece of its policy of engagement with the United Nations.

One of the primary criticisms of the U.N.’s top human rights body – and one of the key reasons given by the Bush administration for shunning it – has been its obsessive focus on Israel.

A recent U.S.congressional hearing was told that well over half of all condemnatory resolutions taken by the body since its establishment in 2006 targeted Israel. Of 12 emergency “special sessions” relating to specific country situations held by the council since 2006, six dealt with Israel.

The spotlight on Israel has largely arisen from the fact that Islamic states and their allies dominate the council. But equally pertinent is the item on the HRC’s permanent agenda that ensures Israel will come up for discussion at every session.

The HRC has ten permanent items on its agenda, ranging from “organizational and procedural matters” (item one) to “technical assistance and capacity-building” (item ten).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds a press conference after her address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 28, 2011. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

Two of the items deal with specific human rights situations: Item seven deals with the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,” and item four covers the rest of the world – “Human rights situations that require the council’s attention.”

Five years into the life of the council, the review process now underway is intended to rectify some of the weaknesses that have become evident since it began operating, including the Israel issue and the absence of strict membership criteria – a situation that has enabled countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China to become members.

“The structural bias against Israel – including a standing agenda item for Israel, whereas all other countries are treated under a common item – is wrong,” Clinton told the council in Geneva on Monday.

“And it undermines the important work we are trying to do together,” she added. “As member states, we can take this council in a better, stronger direction.”

Clinton said the administration had joined the HRC in 2009 “because President Obama and I believed we could make a difference by working with you on the inside rather than standing on the outside merely as a critic.”

She said the U.S. hoped the review of the council’s work would “help to set a new agenda,” including applying one standard to all countries.

‘Bias confirmed at every sitting’

After the working group last week approved the report that leaves agenda item seven in place, the U.S. delegation in a statement expressed its “disappointment” with the process and the report, citing the failure to remove the agenda item together with several other concerns.

“The council’s bias against Israel is confirmed at every HRC sitting, and to not deal with it here is to ignore one of the council’s most egregious flaws,” it said.

Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and editor of its Eye on the U.N. project, said the administration could have gone further.

“If the Obama administration had really wanted to stand on principle they could have said ‘we do not join consensus on this document,’” she wrote in a column on FoxNews.com on Monday.

“They could have demanded that there be a vote in the council on the document before sending it to the General Assembly for formal approval, and then voted against it for the world to see,” Bayefsky said. “And most importantly, they could have made it very clear that the absence of a change would result in the U.S. departure from the council. They did none of the above.”

During the working group negotiations, on Feb. 18, Israel’s delegate, Walid Abu-Haya criticized the group for not ditching agenda item seven, which he described as an “inherent institutional flaw.”

Scrapping the item from the agenda was “the only way to begin the process of reconstructing the council’s credibility and legitimacy,” he said.

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