Israel vs. the United Nations
Israel vs. the United Nations
Wednesday, April 8,2009 16:08
By Barbara Crossette

The appointments of universally respected human rights experts to lead two separate, independent United Nations investigations into Israeli attacks on Gaza in December and January may have put Israel on a new collision course with the UN just as the United States is moving to resume cooperation with the organization on human rights issues.

In February, Ian Martin, a former head of Amnesty International and most recently the UN"s special envoy in Nepal as it was transitioning with difficulty to an elected Maoist-led government, was chosen by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take charge of an inquiry into "incidents involving death and damage at UN premises in Gaza." The UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides food, education and medical care to Palestinians in Gaza, reported in January that more than fifty UN buildings were damaged during the Israeli air and ground offensive.

Last week, Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who was chief prosecutor for war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, was selected by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate allegations that Israel violated international laws in its assault on Gaza. The Human Rights Council is a body of nations not controlled by either the UN secretary general or the UN"s high commissioner for human rights. The secretary general, the first high-ranking international official to visit Gaza after the attacks, has not tried to block what is essentially a war crimes investigation.

Israel"s relations with the United Nations have been fraught for more than four decades, as the former Soviet bloc and some major nonaligned nations, including India, promoted the Palestinian cause at Israel"s expense. In 1975 the General Assembly voted to define Zionism as racism; it was not until 1991 that US pressure under President George H.W. Bush managed to reverse the resolution. But Israel was still not able to join any regional group (important for securing places in UN bodies) until Secretary General Kofi Annan later helped persuade the Europeans to let Israel become part of their caucus, which also includes the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In recent years, a lobby generated by the Organization of the Islamic Conference has revived the practice of trying to insert attacks on Israel into a variety of documents, most of all on human rights.

The inquiries come at an interesting and perhaps tumultuous moment for Israeli-American relations and the hopes of peace with the Palestinians. A new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears intent on taking a tougher stance. Last week, on his first day in office, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that there was "no validity" to the Annapolis agreement negotiated under the administration of George W. Bush, which sought quick progress toward a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

Almost at the same time, the Obama administration was announcing that it would seek a seat on the Human Rights Council, which pro-Israeli organizations have repeatedly denounced for its single-minded criticisms of Israel even as it ignores enormous violations of rights in other countries.

Furthermore, this week talks resume in Geneva on a forthcoming review of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, and there have been anxious last-ditch attempts to bring the United States into the process, which Israel has denounced and will boycott. Israelis and their supporters have pressed the United States not to go. The 2001 conference, held in Durban, South Africa, was seen as hostile to Israel by the United States, which walked out before a more moderate final document was published.

In February, the Obama administration made what to the rest of the world appeared to be an ambiguous announcement about its attitude toward the Durban review meeting, to be held from April 20-24. On March 17, a working group of conference participants rewrote and shortened a proposed agreement for promulgation in Geneva this month, removing all but one of the US "red lines." Gone are mentions of Israel and the contentious notion of "defamation of religion" that had been proposed by Islamic nations. All major regional groups of nations have agreed to work with this newly rewritten text.

The only flashpoint that remains -- unfortunately, in the opening sentence -- is the "reaffirmation" of the 2001 original Durban document. UN officials say, however, that a close reading of that document, which does not include the inflammatory anti-Israeli language sought by nongovernmental organizations and some nations, should render the reaffirmation pretty harmless.

In Washington, the sense is that the United States is out of this Durban process, despite its promise to rethink participation if the final document were to be rewritten, as it now has been. In the United Nations, and among many governments, the hope still is that Washington will take part in the review.

On April 2, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay of South Africa, said she was still waiting for a final US decision and hoped it would be favorable. She also hoped, she said, that Canada would reverse its decision to boycott the review and come back. Several European nations have been waiting for a final word from Washington before deciding whether to attend. Pillay has said repeatedly that countries like Canada and the United States have much to offer in the way of "best practices" in ending racial discrimination and reversing policies harmful to indigenous people.

Among UN human rights officials it is inexplicable that the United States, under an African-American president who is rolling back some of the most destructive actions of the Bush administration on human rights, would not take the opportunity to become a strong voice in international forums designed to tackle these issues -- just as it is on the global economy or promises to be on climate change. The absence of the United States and other like-minded nations only leaves the human rights agenda in the hands of those who would twist it or debase it in their own defensive political interests.

Barbara Crossette, United Nations correspondent for The Nation magazine, is a former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief in Asia and at the UN.

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