The Human Rights Council is a body still in its infancy. Set up only seven years ago by the UN General Assembly, it had one over-riding purpose – to rectify the egregious faults of its predecessor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). The UNCHR had been a working body of the United Nations virtually from its foundation in 1946, but over its 60 years of existence it had accrued a raft of objectionable practices which finally made the organisation totally unacceptable to governments and activists alike.
Among its more unseemly usages was to include flagrant human rights violaters among its members and, moreover, to elect such people from time to time to chair the commission − representatives of countries like Zimbabwe, Algeria, Syria, Libya, Vietnam and China, all states with extensive records of human rights violations. These individuals, by opposing resolutions to the commission which condemned human rights violations, in effect sustained and promoted despotism and repression throughout the world.
Another major criticism of the commission was its compliance at being used as a platform from which to castigate selective targets. Chief among the objects of this blatant politicisation was Israel. An analysis in 2002 revealed that the commission had devoted no less than 33 per cent of its country-specific resolutions to condemning Israel in one way or another.
A by-product of this was the commission’s brazen failure to apply the UN charter's standards across the board. When issues such as the stoning of women, honor killings, mutilations, and the apostasy death penalty were raised during the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2004, officials from certain Muslim-majority states rejected any criticism as “interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."
All this finally became too much even for the General Assembly, which eventually voted to disband the old commission and to set up a shining new United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in its place.
How has the new body been doing?
It is perhaps, significant, that UNHRC is UNHCR with just one letter transposed. In short, in the council’s early years you could barely see the difference.
For example, from the time of its foundation in 2006 until 2012, the new council had published no less than 48 reports condemning Israel. During the same period there were 9 reports on Syria’s mass killings of its own citizens, three on the terrorist-supporting repressive régime in Iran, and not one on China, which is far removed from granting its billion citizens basic human rights.
More than this, the council voted on 30 June 2006 to include as a permanent feature of every session a review of alleged human rights abuses by Israel − a resolution sponsored by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Calling on the council to avoid the selectivity that discredited its predecessor, Human Rights Watch urged it to look at international human rights and humanitarian law violations committed by Palestinian armed groups as well. This proposal was not followed through.
As a result of all this, eminent UN figures like UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, his predecessor in office Kofi Annan, and former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, have criticized the council for acting exactly like the old commission − namely, following the political agenda of some of its members as opposed to advancing human rights. Specifically, in 2006, Kofi Annan argued that the Council should not have a "disproportionate focus on violations by Israel… The Council should give the same attention to grave violations committed by other states as well." In 2007, Ban Ki Moon said: "The Secretary-General is disappointed at the council's decision to single out only one specific regional item, given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world."
Which countries’ representatives currently sit in judgement on the human rights record of democratic Israel? The UNHRC’s current membership includes Congo, Uganda, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Qatar, Indonesia, and Malaysia − none with human rights records to be particularly proud of.
In short, the old UNCHR and the new UNHRC seemed in effect Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Council’s decision in March 2012 to establish an international investigative committee on the West Bank settlements was the last straw as far as Israel was concerned. Israel’s then-Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, severed all ties with the UNHRC.
However the new council has at least one saving grace - its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. This procedure, which envisages all 193 UN member states having their human rights record reviewed every four years, is widely regarded as a cornerstone of the global human rights system. After breaking with the council, Israel threatened to become the first state to boycott the UPR process.
A number of Western democratic countries feared that this would set a damaging precedent, and provide states such as Iran and North Korea with an excuse not to participate in the UPR. Acknowledging the validity of this argument, Israel decided not to boycott its UPR, but asked for the process to be postponed until October 2013.
The UNHRC chair is currently occupied by Switzerland, and in May 2013 Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter visited Israel to discuss the renewal of Israel’s cooperation with the council. During the discussions Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin asked for the cancellation of the council's "Article 7," which stipulates that every conference must include a separate discussion on human rights in Israel – a requirement laid on no other UN member. In addition Israel was interested in joining the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). Currently Israel is not a member of any such group.
Following the discussions, an Israeli official flew to Geneva to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the UNHRC aimed at renewing ties between Israel and the council. As a result, in June Israel’s ambassador to the UNHRC, Eviatar Maner, wrote to the council’s president, Remigiusz Henczel: “I wish to cooperate with you with a view to positively resolve all outstanding issues in Israel’s complex relationship with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms.”