While Israel is not the first nation to skip a United Nations review of its human rights record (Haiti did this once), it became the first nation to do so without providing a reason on Tuesday in Geneva.
Remigiusz Henczel, the Polish diplomat that presides over the U.N.'s top rights body, declared that Israel was a no-show at Tuesday's meeting. Israel asked Henczel to postpone the meeting, but did not provide a public explanation. Henczel then reconvened the Human Rights Council, which eventually agreed to the unanimous decision of deferring the review until the Council's next session in October and November the latest.
Henczel said the compromise would set precedent for "how to deal with all cases on non-cooperation" in the future.
Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the council, supported the unprecedented deferral, in an effort to "find common ground to and protect" the review process.
While U.S. diplomats have said the council is too focused on Israel, diplomats from nations like Egypt and Pakistan jumped at the chance to highlight Israel's absence and the precedence it could create for other countries that wish to be deferred of a rights review.
Although Israel did not provide this reason as an explanation, their absence came at a time when Israel was beginning to form a new government coalition following parliamentary elections. Still, all U.N. nations are required to submit to the Human Rights Council review every four years, and Israel's deferral could be potentially damaging to the credibility of the U.N., which already lacks teeth. Furthermore, the absence leads to some speculation concerning Israel's human rights record. What is Israel afraid of?
The Goldstone Report, originally concluded that both Israel and Palestine committed potential war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including the use of disproportionate force, deliberately targeting civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, and using people as human shields. The report called on each side to conduct independent investigations into the allegations.
According to a follow-up report by a separate U.N. committee of independent experts found that Israel has carried out investigations into more than 400 allegations of misconduct in Gaza. The report indicated that intentionally targeting civilians was not a matter of Israeli policy, except in some cases involving individual soldiers. The follow-up committee also added that Hamas had not carried out any such investigations.
In an op-ed titled "Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes," released in April 2011, Goldstone opens by saying:
We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.
The article continues to read:
The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.
The purpose of these investigations, as I have always said, is to ensure accountability for improper actions, not to second-guess, with the benefit of hindsight, commanders making difficult battlefield decisions. While I welcome Israel's investigations into allegations, I share the concerns reflected in the McGowan Davis report that few of Israel's inquiries have been concluded and believe that the proceedings should have been held in a public forum. 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.
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. The Israeli military’s numbers have turned out to be similar to those recently furnished by Hamas (although Hamas may have reason to inflate the number of its combatants).
I had hoped that our inquiry into all aspects of the Gaza conflict would begin a new era of evenhandedness at the U.N. Human Rights Council, whose history of bias against Israel cannot be doubted.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza said:
Israel's decision to boycott the UPR is yet another demonstration of its contempt for international human rights norms, and is made possible by the complacency of the international community. The failure to hold Israel to account for its violations of international human rights and humanitarian law has further deepened the culture of impunity which allows such violations to occur.
Fifteen Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations have called on the Human Rights Council "to take a firm stand consistent with the seriousness of Israel's obstructive actions to date," warning that Israel's unprecedented move is "one that could be followed by other States refusing to engage with the UN in order to avoid critical appraisals."
The groups add that:
Israel's decision to disengage from core mechanisms of the United Nations human rights system has, in effect, resulted in preferential treatment. All but one of the 193 UN Member States have attended their UPR as scheduled; in that single instance the State of Haiti was unable to attend due to the humanitarian crisis caused by the 2010 earthquake. Israel should not receive any benefits or concessions for its efforts to undermine the system of the UN and, in particular, its human rights system.
The groups summarize Israel’s track record:
Israel's move to suspend cooperation with the Council and the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) must be viewed within the context of its ongoing refusal to respect the decisions, resolutions and mechanisms of the UN. Consecutive Israeli governments have refused to recognize the State’s obligations under international human rights law with regard to the Palestinian population of the occupied Palestinian territory (opt), obligations repeatedly reaffirmed in statements by UN treaty bodies.