Lebanon’s human rights record up for review


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Lebanon is due to go before the United Nations Human Rights Council next week for a review of its human rights policy. Activists say that since the last human rights review five years ago, the situation has not improved.

“Over the years we have had many meetings on the issue of torture including talks with the Prime Minister last January,” Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “When we look at Lebanon’s record over the past five years, we see missed opportunities, procrastination and a lack of leadership.”

Lebanese authorities deny these charges. In its national submission to the Human Rights Council last month, the Lebanese government asserted that “vigorous steps are also being taken to prevent torture by prosecuting perpetrators of torture and either sentencing them to imprisonment or subjecting them to severe disciplinary measures, such as dismissal from office.”

The problem, activists say, is that the military investigates itself, making convictions almost impossible. Lebanon committed itself to establishing the National Preventive Mechanism to visit facilities like jails and police stations where torture is believed to take place, and to stop it before it starts.

“According to our statistics, in prisons and police stations, at least 60 percent of the detainees are subjected to torture and ill treatment during their investigation,” Marie Daunay, of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights told The Media Line. “During detention people are kept in underground places where they never see sunlight which is a form of psychological torture.”

In the past few months there have been growing protests against the government which closed the main landfill in the country without offering an alternative. Mounds of garbage have piled up in the streets.

“I filmed militia groups throwing rocks and concrete blocks during the recent protests,” Habib Fattah, an investigative journalist in Lebanon told The Media Line. “The militia is part of one of the political parties in Lebanon, and my footage went viral. The party later claimed they had nothing to do with the attacks but I showed that the men were close to the speaker of parliament.”

The only bright note is a 2014 law on domestic violence that makes it easier for women to file complaints against their husbands, and encourages the government to prosecute them.

Officials blame the current political crisis in Lebanon for their inability to do more to safeguard human rights. Lebanon currently has no president, and the government is a caretaker one that hesitates to take decisions. In addition, Lebanon is struggling to handle the 1.2 million Syrian refugees who fled to the country.

Refugees from Syria have to pay about $260 to renew their residency permits each year, more than many of them make in a month. As a result the number of illegal asylum seekers is increasing each year, which presents its own human rights challenges. These refugees will not turn to the police if a crime is committed against them, fearing they could be arrested and deported back to Syria.

Houry recognizes the challenges that Lebanon is facing but says they cannot be an excuse for human rights abuses.

“The scale of the problem is like the garbage crisis – it’s just getting worse,” he said. “Procrastination and mediocrity are not doing Lebanon any service at this stage.”

Netanyahu asked European leaders to vote against Israel at U.N.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked several European leaders to support the United Nations Human Rights Council report that slams Israel’s Gaza war actions, a British newspaper reported.

Netanyahu called British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other “key allies” last Friday before the Human Rights Council vote later that day, according to the Jewish Chronicle of London. The Israeli leader reportedly wanted the resolution to be adopted so that an alternate version, which could have been more critical of Israel, would not be drafted.

An unidentified source close to Cameron said that the British prime minister, who is publicly pro-Israel, initially thought the move would be “pure madness” but eventually voted in favor of the resolution after being assured that other European leaders were also voting for it.

Of the 47 members on the Human Rights Council, only the United States voted against the resolution, which accused both Israel and the Palestinians of possible war crimes but devoted more criticism toward Israel. Five nations abstained from voting.

In a statement on Monday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry “all but denied” the allegations that Netanyahu reached out to the European leaders, the Times of Israel reported.

“Israel announced to all the members of the Human Rights Council that it is strongly opposed to the resolution that was adopted, as was expressed in the State of Israel’s formal response,” the Foreign Ministry said. “At the same time, Israel asked the members of the council to ensure that the proposed text is not made harsher.”

“Both the Israelis and the Brits will deny this,” the source close to Cameron told the Jewish Chronicle. “It sounds bonkers. But it’s true.”

Owning up to truths: The UNHRC and its report


The report on last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas by a committee representing the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) elicited the usual response from the Israel government – even before its formal release on Monday!  Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that the committee had ascertained that Israel was ““guilty even before the examination began.”  His government released its own report a day earlier maintaining “unequivocally that our military actions during that conflict were in full accordance with international law.”  

One can readily imagine how Netanyahu and his government arrived at this conclusion.  Since its inception in March 2006, the UNHRC has a history of training much of its attention on Israel-Palestine.  As of last year, nearly half of the resolutions it passed were condemnations of Israel.  This is, by any standard, disproportionate and betrays a deep skew that requires correcting.  Both Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon, the previous and current Secretaries-General of the United Nations, have criticized this over-emphasis on Israel.  Annan argued in 2006 that while Israel should hardly be immune to criticism, “the Council should give the same attention to grave violations committed by other states as well.”  Indeed, the world, and even more particularly, the Middle East, are rife with gross violators of human rights, both state and non-state actors.  

And yet, the flaws of the UNHRC must not provide a shield for Israel to hide behind.  This has become a favored tactic.  Last year, it was the genocidal Iranian threat that was intended to give Israel a free pass; more recently, it’s become the BDS movement that precludes any serious critique of the Occupation.  This is not to say that Iran is a benign kitten nor that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) doesn’t include some nefarious elements in its midst.  It is to say that these two causes can and do serve as bogeymen–instruments of deflection for the Israeli government to avoid troubling issues over which it has some measure of control.

Now it is the biased nature of the UNHRC that forestalls self-scrutiny by Israel of its massive asymmetric use of power in Gaza.   But we should take a closer look.  The UNHRC report was not, as the talking points of the Israeli government insist, the Schabas report, named after the Canadian law professor whose seeming bias led him in February to resign his role as committee chair.  Rather, it was written by New York jurist Mary McGowan-Davis, a former federal prosecutor and New York State Supreme Court justice, along with Senegalese diplomat Doudou Diène.  Given the limitations at hand—neither Israel nor Hamas would allow access to the committee—McGowan-Davis put together a credible account of what transpired in the summer of 2014.  It is not a perfect report.  But it does do what Israel supporters have long complained reports of this nature do not do: it focused attention on both sets of combatants.  The report sets the frame by describing the broad backdrop: “The hostilities of 2014 erupted in the context of the protracted occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and of the increasing number of rocket attacks on Israel.”  Only if one were to deny that there has been an Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory after 1967 would this framing description appear biased. 

The report then moves on to make the following key points:

  • Israel’s blockade of Gaza undermined the fragile economic infrastructure of the Strip, contributing to a sense of extreme desperation;
  • Palestinian rocket attacks and tunnel-building undermined Israelis’ sense of security in their own country;
  • The brutal murders of three Israeli Jewish teenagers in June 2014 and of a Palestinian teenager the next month created an environment boiling over with rage and calls for revenge;
  • In the resulting war in Gaza, “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented;”
  • The use of rockets by Palestinian militants against Israeli civilians was a violation of “international humanitarian law, in particular of the fundamental principle of distinction, which may amount to a war crime;”
  • In six cases investigated, the committee found no justification for Israeli rocket attacks on apartment buildings in Gaza.  To attack a residence inhabited by civilians “in the absence of a specific military target” violates the principle of distinction and, in this case, may be a war crime;  
  • Accountability is sorely lacking.  Israel’s own self-investigations to date have almost always exonerated its own personnel, lending a sense that “impunity prevails across the board for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law allegedly committed by Israeli forces;”  
  • Meanwhile, accountability on the Palestinian side is “woefully inadequate.” The Palestinian leadership has “consistently failed to ensure that perpetrators of violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law are brought to justice.”

 

Contrary to what has been reported—and claimed by the Netanyahu government—this is not a case of the UNHRC picking on Israel unfairly.  Rather, the committee was seeking to capture the underlying casus belli and ensuing scale of destruction set against the vast power differential between the two sides.  It took both sides to task, in proportionate ways, without insisting that the case be remanded immediately to the International Criminal Court.  On the contrary, it called upon “the Government of Israel to conduct a thorough, transparent, objective and credible review of policies governing military operations and of law enforcement activities in the context of the occupation.”  To all those who believe in and/or agitate for Israeli democracy, this seems like a perfectly reasonable and indeed necessary step.


David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

Report by U.N. panel probing Gaza war crimes postponed for 3 months


The U.N. panel investigating possible war crimes during last summer’s Gaza conflict has received a three-month extension to present its report.

The report of the Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict was due to be published this month but was postponed to June, according to the United Nations. The panel had asked for the postponement.

“The commissioners have indicated their desire for more time in order to assess the information that they have collected – much of which has only been received in recent weeks,” a commission spokeswoman said. “These are complex issues – weighing the facts and considering the legal questions that arise is something that should not be rushed under any circumstances.”

The delay comes in part because of the resignation last month of the former head of the commission, William Schabas, after Israel provided evidence to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that he had authored a seven-page legal opinion on behalf of the PLO for which he was paid.

Panel member Mary McGowan Davis, a former justice of the Supreme Court of New York, was named to replace Schabas, whom Israeli officials and Jewish groups accused of anti-Israel bias following his appointment. The only other panel member is Doudou Dienne of Senegal, a former United Nations watchdog on racism and on post-conflict in the Ivory Coast.

Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation, including denying entry to members of the commission, though some Israelis did testify before the committee members.

Kerry decries Human Rights Council’s ‘obsession’ with Israel


There is an “unbalanced focus” on Israel by the United Nations Human Rights Council, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told its members.

“No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country,” Kerry said in an address to the council on Monday in Geneva.

“It must be said the HRC’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization,” he added, citing the fact that only Israel is a permanent agenda item on the council’s schedule.

Kerry’s defense of Israel at the council comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, where he will criticize the Obama administration for the nuclear deal it is negotiating with Iran and the world powers.

Kerry will not attend the speech, and instead will travel from Geneva to Switzerland to resume nuclear negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“We will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the U.N. system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel,” Kerry told the council. “When it comes to human rights no country on earth should be free from scrutiny, but neither should any country be subject to unfair or unfounded bias.”

During his speech, Kerry also denounced human rights abuses in Syria, North Korea and Ukraine.

Kerry on Monday in Geneva told reporters that he was “concerned” unrevealed details about the proposed deal with Iran would become public. While he did not mention Netanyahu by name, Kerry’s comments came after an unnamed Israeli official was quoted as saying that Israel knows more about the proposed deal than Congress and that Netanyahu will reveal these details during his address to Congress on Tuesday.

Alleging U.N. bias, Israel again keeping distance from Gaza probe


The United Nations probe into the Gaza conflict hasn’t even begun, but Israel already is convinced that it won’t end well.

In a resolution adopted by a vote of 29-1 with 17 abstentions, the U.N. Human Rights Council moved last month to establish a commission of inquiry “to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” The United States cast the sole vote against.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the council for choosing to investigate Israel rather than nearby crisis zones such as Iraq or Syria, and implied he would not cooperate with U.N. investigators.

“The report of this committee has already been written,” Netanyahu said following a meeting with visiting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The committee chairman has already decided that Hamas is not a terrorist organization. Therefore, they have nothing to look for here. They should visit Damascus, Baghdad and Tripoli. They should go see ISIS, the Syrian army and Hamas. There they will find war crimes, not here.”

Israel has been down this road before. Following the end of the last Gaza conflict, in early 2009, its government refused to cooperate with a U.N. investigation led by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The probe, dubbed the Goldstone Report, alleged that Israel had intentionally targeted civilians, though Goldstone later personally retracted that allegation. Israel rejected the original report as inaccurate and biased.

This time, the commission will be chaired by William Schabas, a Canadian-born professor of international law at Middlesex University in London. Schabas said in an Aug. 12 interview with Israel’s Channel 2 that it would be “inappropriate” to assert that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Last year, Schabas said that Netanyahu would be his “favorite” leader to see tried at the International Criminal Court.

Schabas’ father is Jewish and he sits on the advisory board of the Israel Law Review. In the Channel 2 interview, he said he would not let his personal opinions affect his investigation.

“What someone who sits on a commission or a judge has to be able to do is to put these things behind them and start fresh, and this is of course what I intend to do,” Schabas said. “It’s in Israel’s interest to be there in that discussion and give its version of events. If it doesn’t, then that leaves an unfortunate one-sided picture of it.”

Israeli cooperation could have softened his report’s conclusions, Goldstone wrote in the 2011 Washington Post Op-Ed in which he backed down from the report’s most scathing criticism of Israel. Goldstone noted that subsequent investigations by the Israeli military indicated that it was not Israel’s intent to target civilians.

“Although the Israeli evidence that has emerged since publication of our report doesn’t negate the tragic loss of civilian life, I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes,” Goldstone wrote. “Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants.”

Among Israeli legal experts, there is broad agreement that Israel must do its part to present its version of events, even while disagreeing about how best to do that. Only Israel’s state comptroller has indicated that he will be investigating the Gaza conflict.

Amichai Cohen, an international law expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the comptroller’s probe is insufficient and that Israel should launch an investigation by experts.

“The comptroller himself doesn’t have knowledge in international law, in criminal law, in military law. That’s not his specialty,” Cohen told JTA. “You need something independent and transparent.”

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based NGO UN Watch and a vocal critic of the Human Rights Council’s treatment of Israel, said Israel should do what it did in 2009: publish accounts from the conflict that show its side of the story without directly cooperating with the investigation.

“If the U.N. decides to have a one-sided inquiry, they will write a one-sided report,” Neuer said. “I’m confident Israel will make sure that the commission will have no excuse to say they didn’t have the information.”

Shlomy Zachary, a lawyer with the Palestinian legal rights group Yesh Din, urged Israel to cooperate with the United Nations, noting that its decision to work with a 2010 U.N. investigation of the so-called flotilla incident helped mitigate criticism of Israel.

That probe, known as the Palmer Commission, was charged with investigating the storming of a Turkish boat aimed at breaking Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. The report ultimately condemned the raid, but it also criticized the conduct of protesters on board the ship and determined that the Gaza blockade was legal.

“When Israel cooperated with international bodies, the results were in favor of Israel,” Zachary told JTA. “When Israel is not willing to cooperate, it creates the suspicion it has something to hide.”

Neuer agreed that the 2010 probe was a good model for U.N. investigations, but he noted that it was supervised by the U.N. secretary-general, not the Human Rights Council. Neuer said that given the commission’s record of bias, Israel’s options are more limited.

Ultimately, the conclusions of the latest investigation will not be legally binding on Israel. But if its conclusions are harsh, it could further ratchet up international criticism. Cohen said that could put added pressure on Israel to exercise restraint should another round of conflict take place.

“The point in these commissions isn’t just to research the past, it’s to tell the future,” Cohen said. “The main problem is that a commission will say from now on, this or that should be prohibited. This is very problematic for Israel. That will make it harder next time.”

U.S. envoy to U.N. slams Human Rights Council’s Gaza panel


Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, criticized the world body’s panel created to investigate the recent conflict in Gaza.

At a private meeting on Friday with American Jewish communal leaders, Power said the U.N.’s Human Rights Council “has shown itself incapable of engaging constructively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to one attendee of the meeting.

Power also slammed the commission of inquiry announced last week as “wildly unbalanced,” according to the same source, and said “the process for the appointment of the commissioners was ill conceived, poorly executed and does nothing to dispel the perception of bias within the council.”

The meeting was held at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York City.Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, criticized the world body’s panel created to investigate the recent conflict in Gaza.

At a private meeting on Friday with American Jewish communal leaders, Power said the U.N.’s Human Rights Council “has shown itself incapable of engaging constructively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to one attendee of the meeting.

Power also slammed the commission of inquiry announced last week as “wildly unbalanced,” according to the same source, and said “the process for the appointment of the commissioners was ill conceived, poorly executed and does nothing to dispel the perception of bias within the council.”

The meeting was held at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York City.

The commission of inquiry has already drawn stiff criticism from “>number of its 

Clooney’s fiancee turns down U.N. commission


Amal Alamuddin, the British attorney engaged to actor George Clooney, declined her nomination to serve on a U.N. panel investigating Israel for possible war crimes in Gaza.

Alamuddin attributed her decision to “prior professional commitments,” she said, adding she “regrets that the commission will not benefit from her expertise in the field,” The Gulf Today reported Tuesday. Her nomination by the United Nations Human Rights Council to the three-person commission had been announced the previous day.

Despite rejecting the position, Alamuddin said there should be an “independent investigation and accountability for crimes that have been committed,” according to The Daily Mail.

The commission will be chaired by William Schabas, a Canadian international law professor who has been accused of bias against Israel.

Schabas has been asked to recuse himself by UN Watch, a nongovernmental organization that monitors the international body. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said his nomination “proves beyond any doubt that Israel cannot expect justice from this body, and that the committee’s report is already written.”

In his defense, Schabas told public radio, according to The Gulf Today, “I’ve frequently lectured in Israel, at universities in Israel, I’m a member of the editorial board of the Israel Law Review, I wouldn’t do those things if I was anti-Israel.”

Schabas said the investigation will examine both parties in the conflict, Israelis and Palestinian militants.

 

U.N. panel probing Israel to include George Clooney’s fiancee


Amal Alamuddin, a British attorney and the fiancee of actor George Clooney, will serve on a U.N. commission investigating Israel for possible war crimes in Gaza.

Alamuddin, who was the legal adviser to the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and has represented WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, will be part of a three-person panel of inquiry, the United Nations Human Rights Council said Monday.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the commission is charged with investigating “all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” in the recent conflict in Gaza.

William Schabas, a Canadian international law professor, will chair the commission, which also includes Doudo Diene, a Senegalese attorney who advised the U.N. on the human rights situation in the Ivory Coast from 2011 to this year.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry slammed the selection of Schabas as chairman, saying in a statement that his “opinions and positions on Israel are known to all,” according to the Times of Israel.

Choosing Schabas, the ministry said, “proves beyond any doubt that Israel cannot expect justice from this body, and that the committee’s report is already written. What has just been determined is who will sign it.”

The leader of UN Watch, a nongovernmental organization that monitors the world body, called on Schabas to recuse himself because his “repeated calls to indict Israeli leaders obviously gives rise to actual bias or the appearance thereof.”

“You can’t spend several years calling for the prosecution of someone, and then suddenly act as his judge,” UN Watch’s Hillel Neuer said in a news release.

The group also questioned the appointment of Alamuddin.

“She has some experience,” Neuer said, “but at 36 she will be the youngest ever to serve on any UN inquiry, raising suspicions that the UN is trying to inject some Hollywood publicity into the process.”

UNHRC draws Jewish praise for Iran position


The U.N. Human Rights Council drew rare praise from Jewish groups for creating a position for a special rapporteur on Iran.

“Following the recent suspension of Libya’s membership in the Human Rights Council, this vote on Iran conveys another strong message that the Geneva-based body is beginning to wake up from its lethargy and look seriously at some significant violators of human rights, such as Libya and Iran,” the American Jewish Committee said Thursday after the council voted 22-7, with 14 abstentions, to create the position. “American leadership has been critical to this change.”

B’nai B’rith International also praised the move away from the Council’s reputation as obsessively focused on Israel.

“It is encouraging to see the council can in fact see beyond Israel,” it said in a statement. “It is significant that the Human Rights Council members, some voting outside their traditional lines of support, are taking Iran’s escalating human rights abuses seriously.”

Iranian-American groups also praised the vote, which Iran has dismissed as an American manipulation.

“This concrete measure sends a powerful message to the government of Iran that the world will not turn a blind eye to its human rights violations,” the National Iranian American Council said in a statement.

The only other UNHRC special rapporteur addresses Palestinian issues in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Separately, an Israeli was appointed to a UNHRC subcommittee for the first time. Frances Raday will be one of five women on a working group examining discrimination against women under the law.

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