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Israel, Trump, and the UN Human Rights Council: Be careful what you wish for

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En route to Israel on her first official trip, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sought to put the UN Human Rights Council “on notice” that the Trump administration would withdraw from the organisation if certain changes were not implemented.

Among the top concerns of the US government is the HRC’s disproportionate focus on Israel. The Trump administration’s approach to this issue has been remarkably consistent since coming into office last January, and this consistency is particularly noteworthy for an administration where foreign policy is seemingly made on an ad hoc basis, and suggests the administration is serious about withdrawing.

In Haley’s remarks to the Council on 6 June, she accused the organisation of waging a “relentless, pathological campaign” against Israel, noting that failure to change would compel the US to “pursue the advancement of human rights outside the Council”.

Allegations of HRC’s anti-Israel bias are not without merit. In the decade since the Council was established, it passed 68 resolutions against Israel. In comparison, it passed 20 against Syria, nine against North Korea, six against Iran and only three condemning the Sudan.

The Trump administration’s rationale for withdrawing from the HRC echo that of the Bush administration, which opted to boycott the Council when it was first established in 2006: the routine, disproportionate, singling out of Israel for criticism; and the inclusion of gross violators of international human rights law and norms among its members. That year the HRC also adopted Item 7, the only permanent country-specific item on the agenda. It mandates Council members to debate Israeli human rights violations in the territories three times a year, regardless of other violations taking place elsewhere in the world.

Yet by most accounts, the record indicates that Israel is far better off when the US participates as a member. In 2009, the Obama administration joined the HRC, in the hopes of leveraging American engagement to reform the Council. Since then, though the Council continues to disproportionately focus on Israel, this focus has lessened somewhat. According to the HRC, during the Bush administration boycott between 2006 and mid-2009, five special sessions on Israel/Palestine were held, whereas between late 2009 and 2016, the 47-member body held only two such sessions. Additionally, during this same period, the HRC claims time spent on Agenda Item 7 was significantly reduced, to about 8 per cent of the time. As former American Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro noted, while there is still a need for improvement, and the HRC’s anti-Israel bias must be addressed, “with US membership, anti-Israel resolutions declined and new focus was put on Iran, Syria”. Moreover, as one Western ambassador remarked: “It would have been much worse for it [Israel] if the US hadn’t been there.”

Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum have, understandably, routinely condemned the HRC. In the past year, as the Trump administration signalled it would reevaluate US participation in the Council – and across the UN generally – some, including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, MK Michael Oren, and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, have been among those voices publicly urging the US to reconsider its support for the Council.

Those calling for the US to withdraw from the HRC should look closely at UNESCO. In October 2011, the US ceased its annual contributions to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation following its decision to grant Palestinians full membership. The cessation in US payments was automatically triggered by a provision in US law passed by Congress in the early 1990s that calls for halting the dispersal of funds to any UN agency that accepts the Palestinians as full members.

Though the US did not technically withdraw from the organisation, per UNESCO’s constitution, any member state that failed to pay its dues for a two-year period loses its vote in UNESCO’s general assembly.

Thus in November 2013, the US officially lost its voting rights in the organisation. In response, then-Washington-based US National Commissioner for UNESCO Phyllis Magrab stated: “We won’t be able to have the same clout… In effect, we [now won’t] have a full tool box. We’re missing our hammer.”

For Israel, the decline in US influence in UNESCO has had dire consequences. Since 2013, numerous anti-Israel resolutions have been introduced. UNESCO’s recent adoption a controversial resolution, disregarding Judaism’s historic connection to the Temple Mount, is a particularly troublesome development.

The record of HRC activities in recent years indicates that Israel would be far better served by the presence of moderate voices remaining in the organisation. As a member, the US can lobby the organisation to give Israel a fair shake, to abolish Agenda Item 7, and serve as a voice for implementing other, badly needed reforms. Outside the Council, its ability to shield Israel from damaging votes and condemnation by Council member states is greatly reduced. Those in the US and Israel arguing for the US to withdraw should look at the recent conduct of the UK in this regard. After the HRC adopted 5 anti-Israel resolutions in March 2017, the UK criticised the organisation but opted to leverage its participation to rid the body of its anti-Israel bias,warning in a statement that “If things do not change, in the future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Syrian and Palestinian Territories”.

Moreover, at a time when US foreign policy has thrown international politics into a tailspin, those in Israel urging the US to withdraw should proceed with caution. Israel should be mindful that their lobbying of the US in this instance can backfire. First, the US ability to shield Israel from the Council’s unfair attacks will be marginal at best. Secondly, by most accounts, Trump is a transactional president. His self-proclaimed mastery of “the art of the deal” suggests he is not inclined to give away something without gaining something in return. If his administration proceeds to withdraw from the HRC, citing Israel as its primary reason, sooner or later – in his effort to broker the “ultimate deal” between Israeli and Palestinians – he will turn to Israel demanding something significant in return.

Lauren Mellinger is BICOM’s Research Fellow.