When will the UN Human Rights Council follow its own mission?

Delegates arrive for the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2017. Photo via REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

Editor’s note: This opinion tackling the United Nations Human Rights Council is the “con” argument published in conjunction with the “pro” argument written by David Kaye, “Reform, but don’t leave UN Human Rights Council.

In a recent letter to a group of nine non-profit organizations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a “biased agenda against Israel” and urged that “considerable reform” would be needed for the US to continue its involvement.

This was an important development, and one that echoes a growing chorus of voices who believe that the UNHRC must be pressured to change. As currently constituted, the Council discriminates against Israel and whitewashes oppression all over the world, violating its own mission and ultimately doing far more harm than good to the cause of human rights.

The UNHRC’s failure has been evident for many years now. In 2006, when the Council was founded, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was already expressing concerns about a “disproportionate focus on violations by Israel.” Unfortunately, Annan and his successor, Ban Ki Moon, were unable to hold the UNHRC accountable. According to UN Watch, between 2006 and 2015 the Council condemned Israel 62 times, compared with just 55 against all other countries combined.

The UNHRC’s discrimination and bigotry against Israel do not simply end at the disproportional condemnations. In 2008, the Council appointed extremist Richard Falk to a six-year term as “Special Rapporteur” on “human rights in the Palestinian territories.” Falk has publicly endorsed the “The Wandering Who?a book that has been widely condemned for anti-Semitism; praised leading 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin, and been accused of being “a partisan of Hamas” by the Palestinian Authority. The UNHRC has thoroughly discredited itself as a judge of right and wrong when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

While the UNHRC has criticized some human rights violations in Syria and elsewhere, it has also strenuously ignored the suffering of countless people living under some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Women continue to suffer brutal oppression in Saudi Arabia, migrant workers are subjected to modern day slavery in Qatar, people are executed at a higher rate in China than in any other country, and political opponents in Venezuela face prosecution for merely criticizing the government.

Yet the UNHRC has not passed a single resolution condemning those responsible for these abuses. Far from facing criticism, these regimes and others like them have actually been rewarded with membership in the UNHRC again and again. The UNHRC has become a place where the worst human rights abusers go to shield themselves from accountability, in part by scapegoating the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.

In December, during one of his final statements as Secretary General, Moon summed up the situation well: “Over the last decade I have argued that we cannot have a bias against Israel at the UN. Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel. In many cases, instead of helping the Palestinian issue, this reality has foiled the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively.”

These candid remarks were a step in the right direction, but they also served as a reminder of how unrealistic it is to expect the UN to fix its problems from within.

Indeed, history has shown that even such criticism from the UN’s own leading officials has not led to necessary changes in the UNHRC and other UN bodies that have been similarly compromised. While withdrawing from the Council may or may not be the answer, Secretary Tillerson’s demands for reform are clearly justified. Billions of US tax dollars are invested year after year as the UN continues to prove that it is incapable of self-improvement.

The US government is right to examine all options to ensure accountability, including cutting off its voluntary funding to the UNHRC and reducing its contributions to the UN’s overall budget. After over a decade of discriminating against Israel and undermining the cause of human rights around the world, it is clear that increased pressure is needed for the UNHRC to finally start following the mission it was created to fulfill.

Roz Rothstein, CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs
Max Samarov, Director of Research & Campus Strategy for StandWithUs