Business as Usual
No love for Israel in Geneva.


Anne Bayefsky

Notwithstanding Kofi Annan’s anxious disclaimers, U.N. special envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi’s tendentious proclamation that Israel is “the great poison in the region” is no aberration. Assigning blame to Israel for the nonexistence of Arab democracy, the impoverishment of Arab populations, and the human-rights deficit throughout the Muslim world is standard U.N. policy. Indeed, in a subsequent interview, Brahimi affirmed his original incitement, saying “this is a fact–not opinion.”

The annual six-week ritual of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, which ended on Friday, makes the point all too clearly.

After more than a month of negotiations, the commission on its final day could no longer avoid the ethnic cleansing in Sudan, which has left 30,000 dead and 900,000 in deplorable conditions. The U.S. proposal to condemn “the grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Darfur,” and to call on the government of Sudan “to ensure all attacks against civilians are stopped” was defeated. Instead, the resolution announced: “the Commission expresses its solidarity with the Sudan in overcoming the current situation.”

The Sudan result was actually better than the commission outcomes on gross human-rights abuses in China and Zimbabwe. Resolutions on these states were blocked by the success of procedural no-action motions.

Consideration of the human-rights situation in Iran didn’t even make it to the floor. This was despite a report from one of the commission’s working groups describing a legal system with the following features. “[E]vidence by a man is equivalent to that of two women”; punishments for sins “against divine law” are “the death penalty, crucifixion, stoning, amputation of the right hand and, for repeat offences, the left foot, flogging…”; and “criminal proceedings in their entirety are…concentrated in the hands of a single person since the judge prosecutes, investigates and decides the case.” Iranian impunity from U.N. concern has practical results. Shortly after a meeting in Iran with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression in November 2003, one person disappeared.

Israel was treated somewhat differently by the U.N.’s primary human-rights body, which is composed of a majority of Asian and African states and whose membership includes countries with such appalling human-rights records as China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Not only were five resolutions adopted condemning Israel, but the commission took three hours out of its schedule to mourn the death of Hamas terrorist leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Yassin personally instigated and authorized suicide bombing and exhorted his followers to “armed struggle” against Israelis and Jews “everywhere.” A special sitting for Yassin was convened on March 22, 2004, despite the fact that the commission was already in session, and about to consider the only country-specific agenda item at the commission for the past 34 years–on Israel.

Although Israel’s action was denounced by the commission and the secretary-general as an “extrajudicial killing,” the conclusion is not only inflammatory, but incorrect. Both Yassin, and Abdel Aziz Rantissi, were combatants in a war. The legal term “extrajudicial,” by definition, applies only to individuals entitled to judicial process before being targeted. Combatants–including the unlawful combatants of Hamas who seek to make themselves indistinguishable from the civilian population–are not entitled to such prior judicial process. International Committee of the Red Cross manuals state that civilians who take a direct part in hostilities forfeit their immunity from attack. Furthermore, judicial process was not an option for Israel since it would have placed both Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian civilians at much greater risk. The legal limit in targeting combatants like Yassin is the rule of proportionality, or “incidental loss of civilian life” which is not “excessive” (in the language of the Geneva Conventions). In these cases, the outcome was proportionate since civilian casualties were kept to a minimum.

What makes the U.N.’s professed interest in the subject even more unconvincing was the commission’s total lack of response to a simultaneous report on recent extrajudicial killings in Brazil. The U.N. Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions attempted to raise the alarm on more than 3,000 civilians murdered in Brazil at the hands of military and civil police. Details of “poorly disguised extrajudicial executions…[in which] the lethal shots had been fired from behind and at close range” were provided. Two people brave enough to talk to the rapporteur were shot and killed shortly after the U.N. representative left the country. No mention was made by the Human Rights Commission of Brazil.

The Commission Rapporteur on the Right to Food, while noting almost a billion people undernourished, spent his time issuing a special report on a “food crisis” in the “occupied Palestinian territory.” He found blame on the “apartheid wall.” No reference was made, however, to the inevitable disruption to the movement of goods and workers through passes subject to frequent terrorist attack, or the millions of dollars recently deposited in Mrs. Arafat’s bank account.

The Commission Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief managed to produce an entire global report without mentioning “anti-semitism.” The commission does, however, continue to require the production of an annual report on the “situation of Muslim and Arab peoples in various parts of the world.” To his credit, the author of that report suggested to the commission that a report on anti-semitism would also be appropriate. His suggestion was ignored.

Perhaps the attitude of the U.N. towards Israeli victims of five decades of war and terror aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state is best summed up by the attitude of U.N. Special Rapporteur on Israel John Dugard. He told the commission “[a]fter the necessary disclaimer of sympathy for terrorism, the report will focus on two issues that…most seriously demand the attention of the international community–the unlawful annexation of Palestinian territory and the restrictions on freedom of movement.”

The 2004 U.N. Human Rights Commission produced 5,539 pages of documents. Six weeks later there had been 86 separate votes, with the U.S. being in the minority 85 percent of the time.

In a final irony, the 2004 commission’s last act was to consider that its performance warranted an additional six meetings next year–to be paid for, no doubt, from the U.N.’s regular budget, 22 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

Anne Bayefsky is an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School. She is also a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.