Israel's failure to attend its Universal Periodic Review session is not altogether shocking given that country's experiences at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The repercussions, however, could reach far beyond that country's already-damaged relationship with the UN. The fact that Israel can unilaterally decide to withdraw from a universal human rights mechanism demonstrates the UN's impotence when it comes to human rights. Israel's actions set a precedent for other known human rights abusers similarly to boycott their review sessions or other Council sessions. Setting the ball rolling in this way poses grave dangers for the UN's ability to protect and promote human rights. It is clear that the Council cannot ensure that countries attend their own review sessions, let alone enforce human rights laws. At some point the global community will have to accept the need for a World Court of Human Rights; it may well be that Israel's actions this week inadvertently provide the impetus for that court to be built.
The Human Rights Council does not hold any binding powers, nor is it able to enforce any of its decisions or recommendations. Instead, much of its work focuses on information-sharing and providing a forum for discussion and debate. The Universal Periodic Review was created to ensure that every UN member state's human rights record would be scrutinised during four year cycles. It allows NGOs, human rights activists and other countries to engage with these very public reviews of every UN member. Every country, from Sweden to Somalia, from Denmark to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is reviewed. In that way, no country can accuse the Council of selectivity or bias and all countries can discuss how to improve their human rights record. But as soon as one country withdraws from the process then the whole house of cards is liable to come crashing down.
The Council has been discredited since its creation, in 2006 even if its actions since the Arab Spring have increasingly improved. Last year, Israel pulled out of the Council claiming gross selectivity and bias - claims which are well-founded. Israel is the only country to feature on the Council's permanent agenda. Half of the Council's first 12 special sessions were convened to examine Israeli violations. Countries from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation clearly use Council sessions to push political objectives about Israel that are not related to discussions within that forum. Iran, Algeria, Syria and many others have frequently hijacked discussions about unrelated human rights matters in order once again to shine the spotlight on Israel. One of the most chilling examples of this happened during discussions about the genocide in Darfur. Sudan's allies from the OIC argued that instead of talking about the hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced in Darfur, the Council should be focusing on Israeli violations. But none of this excuses or justifies Israel's actions in committing human rights abuses or its actions in walking out of the Human Rights Council.
Other known human rights abusers might make similar claims about the Council. Countries that receive significant attention at the Council include DPRK, Iran, Myanmar, Sudan and Syria. All of those countries could ask why they have received so much focus when the Council has altogether failed to address widespread abuses in China and Russia. Those abuses do not just occur systematically and with impunity within China and Russia's own lands; both countries oppress and subjugate peoples, within Tibet, Chechnya, Georgia and more. Yet the Council simply ignores those situations. Clearly, there is bias, there is selectivity, and there is a lack of even-handedness. At the same time, none of the countries that receive attention at the Council could ever truly claim not to be violating human rights.
By pulling out of the Council and by failing to attend its review session, Israel has set a dangerous precedent. If the only countries to engage with the Council are countries like Sweden and Denmark then the body will be unable even to fulfil its non-binding functions as a forum for discussions and information-sharing. Known abusers like Iran, Sudan and Zimbabwe will be able to block the Council from fact-finding visits, from reports, from instigating constructive dialogues and from making recommendations. The UN's principal human rights body will no longer be able to examine the human rights records of all UN member states. And so, at that point, the need for a World Court of Human Rights will become even clearer. A court that can prosecute, that can protect, that can prevent and that can punish. A court not dissimilar to those that exist for violations of International Criminal Law; one not dissimilar to the European Court of Human Rights; a court that can remind us all that International Human Rights Law is law. And no doubt, when that happens, Israel will find itself hauled in front of the court and held accountable for its human rights abuses. At which point, they will only have themselves to blame...
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