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reporting on the 34th un human rights council meeting

ICJW representatives to UN Geneva, Mary Liling and Léonie de Picciotto report on the 34th UN Human Rights Council Meeting, which took place from February 27-March 24, 2017.

Times are changing. “Israel should be treated fairly at the UN” is repeatedly heard nowadays from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. The new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterrez, who recently spoke at the World Jewish Congress in NY, stressed that “Israel needs to be treated like any other UN member state”. 

This was already stated previously -with little effect- by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (who was instrumental in founding January 27 as the annual UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day) as well as by Ban Ki Moon, at the end of his term.

Are we witnessing similar changes at the UN Human Rights Council? No and Yes.

No, the obsessive singling out of Israel by means of agenda item 7 “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” still remains a permanent agenda item and is debated at every HRC session, 3 times a year. Israel is the only country to have a stand-alone agenda item at the HRC! All other Human Rights violations are treated under one and the same agenda item 4.

No, at this 34th HRC, 5 anti-Israeli resolutions were adopted by vote, the most disturbing (and absurd) being the standard one focusing on the Golan Heights, in spite of what is happening since 6 years on the other side of the border, in Syria! *

No, when we hear statements made by the representative of Palestine referring to Israel as the “occupation government”, accusing Israel of the world’s worst human rights abuse, of ethnic cleansing, of colonial occupation and a de facto regime of apartheid.

Yes, Since 3 years** the US, Canada, the EU and like-minded democratic countries do not speak under item 7 and make their statements under item 4 “Human rights that require the Council’s attention”, item under which human rights violations of all the countries of the world are examined. According to the head of the US Delegation “the continued existence of agenda item 7. is among the largest threats to the credibility of this body”.

Yes, when we consider the number of countries that abstained, even though the language of the resolutions had been watered down in order to make them more acceptable. ***
The UK declared that if the UN doesn’t change its anti-Israel bias the UK would begin to vote No on all 5 annual resolutions concerning Israel!

Yes, when we witness gradual loss of interest in the Palestinian issue. Of course we have to keep in mind that the same political resolutions keep coming back, over and over again, while conflicts in the unstable, violent region should and did have pushed the issue on the back burner! It is no wonder that nowadays side events on Palestine organized during the HRC sessions attract less NGO’s. At the drafting session of the 5 resolutions on item 7, for once (to our knowledge) open to NGOs, the governmental representatives present, mainly junior assistants, focused their attention elsewhere!

Jewish NGO’s such as UN Watch, the World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, Amuta (Anne Herzberg) made pertinent statements, the most striking one (and moving, I had tears in my eyes) being UN Watch’s executive director Hillel Neuer’s accusations. Interrupted several times (objections by the State of Palestine, Pakistan and Egypt) he kept on asking “Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria Where are your Jews?” and repeated each time “Where is the Apartheid?” There was a heavy silence after he spoke.

Whereas Israel, one of the concerned countries under item 7 (with the State of Palestine and Syria) is always absent for item 7, on several other occasions during this 34th session of the HRC we heard statements by Aviva Raz-Schechter, the new ambassador of Israel to the UN in Geneva, for the first time a woman! She may be more soft-spoken than her predecessors yet she comes on strong in exposing Israel’s arguments. ***** At the briefing for Jewish NGOs prior to the HRC session, we were already aware that she had a different approach, hopefully more successful.

It is undeniable that there are new bottom-up trends. Until recently when we attended side events on Occupied Territories, this always meant Palestinian Occupied Territories. Already two or three years ago we participated in side events on the Occupied Territories (by India) of Jammu and Kashmir, (by Pakistan) of Kashmir and the Occupied Territories (by Morocco) of Western Sahara. On March 14 we were surprised that at the side event “Nations Under Occupation” (Tamil Eelam, Western Sahara, South Yemen Tibet, Kurdistan) there was no Palestinian nor pro-Palestinian speaker on the panel. And no reference was made to Palestinians.

Distributing the flyers concerning Women Wage Peace (for a conference “Can Women Revive the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?” given at the nearby Graduate Institute “Maison de la Paix” where Yael Treidel and Huda Arquob were invited to speak) was an eye-opener. We noted the varied reactions from NGOs, particularly women’s NGO’s, and Palestinian NGO’s (BADIL) with whom we’ve been in touch for years. Not always friendly! 

This time, Renate Bloem of CIVICUS, chairing the wrap-up of the 34th session of the HRC, on behalf of the NGO Committee of Human Rights, announced the event, to all present!

The Plenary Meetings of the very full. 4 weeks of the 34th Human Rights Council started with the High-Level Segment with declarations of a record number of dignitaries and continued with the usual Interactive Dialogues, general debates, panel discussions covering the 10 agenda items, the UPR (Universal Periodic Reviews) of several countries, concluding its 34th session with 41 resolutions.

Side Events

Among the numerous side events we attended (many of which deserve reports in themselves): Human Rights Mainstreaming-Contribution of Human Rights to Peace building; Women’s Rights and Migration; Backsliding on Civic Space in Democracies; Turkey: Journalism and Justice; Ending Human Trafficking and associated Practices; Blasphemy laws un a Digital Age; Children and Terrorism; Freedom of Religion or Belief:
Towards an Agenda for Implementation; Women and Youth in Conflict; Global Action Against Racism; Genocide in Yemen and the International Silence; Nations under Occupation (see above);Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe and Older Refugees’ Human Rights.

In previous reports we mentioned that in recent years new human rights have come to the Council’s attention: among them, the right to Food, the right to Privacy, human rights and Climate Change, Minority rights and the rights of Migrants. Even pesticides are seen as a “global human rights concern”. Nowadays, and according to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN is reaching out to the most vulnerable and less visible sectors of society according to the principle of “Leaving no one Behind”. The rights of the older persons, the rights of people with disabilities, indigenous people’s rights, as well as the crosscutting rights of older refugees, the rights of older refugee women and the rights of women with disabilities are thus being fully recognized.

Exhibition on Child-Mothers

There are always exhibits during the HRC sessions. This time the photo exhibit showed “Child-mothers “ (girls who have given birth to children before they have turned 15) from Burkina Faso, Colombia, Zambia, Jordan, Haiti and the UK. It is a global problem that is often not visible in statistics. Every year, an estimated 2 million girls are child-mothers who face the greatest risks of complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Also, every year about one million children born to adolescent mothers do not make it to their first birthday!

Israel, in cooperation with other countries, namely Austria, Australia, Ecuador, Finland, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and Thailand organized the well-attended governmental side event: “Skills Development and Economic Empowerment: Toward Inclusive Sustainable Development for All”. It dealt with persons with disabilities and the opportunities given in order for them to be able to live full lives. The focus was on the removal of barriers and the respect for diversity. Very revealing are the costs of exclusion. The benefits of inclusion are still being researched.