It’s Time to Stop the UN Human Rights Council’s Downward Spiral
By Becca Wertman-Traub
In April 2022, the UN General Assembly voted to remove Russia as a Member State to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). While undoubtably the right thing to do, it begs the question as to why Russia – a country well known for its repression of freedom of expression and violations of international law – was even a member of the world’s foremost human rights body in the first place.
Unlike the UN General Assembly, where every country in the world has one vote, the UN Human Rights Council consists of just 47 Member States, elected by the General Assembly, and intended to represent the world’s leaders in the defense of human rights. However, today, the UNHRC comprises of Member States that represent the world’s worst abusers of human rights, rewarding these regimes with the power to vote on resolutions, initiate investigations, and, ironically, condemn democratic regimes.
Indeed, China is among the voting members of the UNHRC, despite the fact that the world has watched China’s genocide of the Uyghurs, crackdowns on dissent, and kidnapping of Canadian citizens. Venezuela too sits on the Council, despite it having been accused of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and more crimes against its population, with Global Affairs Canada stating that, “Canada strongly condemns the systematic attacks by the illegitimate Maduro regime against Venezuela's democracy and people through its attempts to undermine Venezuela’s democratic institutions and democratic opposition.”
In this backwards reality – where the world’s worst abusers of human rights hold the power at the UNHRC – it comes as no surprise when a monstrous amount of time, effort, and money is spent in an endless, coordinated effort to condemn a single country – the Jew in the room – rather than allow attention to be drawn to their own regimes’ crimes.
This strategy works quite well for the human rights abusers, with the UNHRC funneling significant resources into attacking Israel. Israel has had more resolutions condemning it than all other countries in the world combined, more Commissioners of Inquiry (COI) into its actions, and it is the only country with an entire regular debate on the Council’s agenda dedicated to it. Nowhere near this level of scrutiny is placed on countries actively committing genocide, such as China.
In its latest endeavour, the UNHRC has embarked on an unprecedented journey prompted by the 2021 Gaza war and led by China, Venezuela, and Russia (while it was still a member of the Council) to investigate Israel – and only Israel –for alleged crimes committed for the entirety of the conflict, its “root causes,” and in perpetuity. With such an outrageously broad mandate, which omits mention of any Palestinian terror groups, comes an outrageous budget, provided by the UNHRC’s donor states, including Canada, which contributed $4.5 million to the UNHRC in 2022.
The COI is led by actors who hold well-documented anti-Israel biases, a choice that contravenes the UN’s own guideline that Commissioners have a “proven record of independence and impartiality.” It is no surprise that, in its first report to the UNHRC published on June 7, the COI’s focus was disproportionately on Israel, mentioning it 157 times, while mentioning Hamas – despite its targeting of Israeli civilians with over 4,000 rockets – just three times. During the presentation of the report to the UNHRC, Chair of the Commission Navi Pillay further emphasized alleged crimes committed by Israel while minimizing the role of Palestinian terrorist organizations, with Syria intervening to accuse Israel of committing “war crimes” and Russia to note it would be a suitable partner to facilitate peace negotiations.
Something must be done to stop the UNHRC’s downward spiral. The answer is not incremental votes by the UN General Assembly to kick members off the Council, with the red line being outright invasion and war crimes. Democracies, including Canada and its allies, should use the leverage they have – diplomatic pressure, public statements, and, if necessary, withholding funds – to ensure that the UNHRC operates as it was intended: as a Council of the world’s human rights role models who act for the benefit of all populations. As the great rabbinic sage, Hillel the Elder, said, “if not now, when?”
Becca Wertman-Traub is a Canadian-Israeli living in Jerusalem who attended the opening of the June 2022 UNHRC session. She is the Director of Research at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy agent of Jewish Federations across Canada, and has a MA in Political Science from Columbia University in New York.