February 12, 2022
The ink had hardly dried on the shortlist for the highly crucial and equally sensitive post of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories before a barrage of venomous attacks was launched on social media by Israeli lobbyists aiming to discredit all of the candidates. This campaign is not really about any of the candidates’ suitability for the job; it is more a reflection of the intentions of Israel and its allies, especially the US, to instill fear in them and deter them from applying for the post should they happen to hold, and even worse express, an opinion on the state of human rights in Palestine.
However, this is not only an attack on the candidates and their competence, but also a calculated attempt to cow the OHCHR itself into selecting officials who won’t ruffle too many feathers, especially Israeli and American ones.
Organizations with chilling names such as UN Watch, Campus Watch or NGO Monitor, as if taken straight from George Orwell’s “1984,” are spending almost every waking hour searching for statements by those who are critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They do so not only to confront such critics, which is completely legitimate and within the democratic rules of the game, but to question their motives and, in many cases, accuse them of anti-Semitism without a shred of evidence. This accusation is always used as a trump card — after all, what liberal organization, especially a UN agency, would want to employ anybody whose name was associated with anti-Semitism?
Smears like this, working on the assumption that “there is no smoke without fire,” are very difficult to shake off once they are out in the open. But it has long been the modus operandi of these pro-Israeli organizations to interfere with the selection of critics of Israel’s gross violations of Palestinians’ human rights for key positions, whether in nongovernmental organizations or UN agencies, and smear their reputation.
A glance at the mandate of the special rapporteur leaves no doubt that it calls for someone with deep knowledge of the conflict and its origins and how it has evolved over the years, as well as someone who is guided by a strong commitment to the UN system and its charter and therefore to international human rights and international law. Moreover, the job requires someone who is not afraid to speak her — the three candidates are all women — mind.
Activists are attempting to silence the candidates for a key role before they have even been appointed.
In a world of constant and heightened flows of information, finding a candidate who has never expressed an opinion that has irritated one or even both sides in this conflict is unrealistic. And it could be argued that those currently shortlisted could have, on certain occasions, phrased their criticisms of Israel more diplomatically. But this does not amount to anti-Semitism or disqualify them for being considered for the post.
Unfortunately, into the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also crept unhelpful and sometimes unacceptable language, on the part of both sides: The language of deep hatred and bias that way too often descends into pure racism, including anti-Semitism and questioning the right of each other to exist, and this is something that should be nipped in the bud whenever it raises its ugly head. However, to attribute such attitudes to a group of highly qualified experts in this conflict, each with a strong background in international law, is no more than a vicious smear campaign that is unlikely to prevent one of them being selected, but nevertheless aims to leave the impression that they are under probation, if not caution, in an effort to silence them before they have even been appointed.
Truth be told, Israel would be very happy if the position of special rapporteur — which has a mandate to investigate Israel’s human rights violations that are suspected of contravening international law, international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention — did not exist at all. The special rapporteur has the power to gather information, including from witnesses and victims of human rights abuses, and to not only report back to the OHCHR, but also to provide recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council.
Much of what it has already recommended makes necessary if very unpleasant reading. It is indisputable that the entire occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza is one colossal abuse of millions of Palestinians’ human rights. However, sometimes a single incident will highlight the need for an international monitoring system of the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories. For instance, late last month, a group of Israeli soldiers cuffed, blindfolded and gagged 80-year-old Palestinian Omar Asad at a checkpoint in the West Bank, where they held him for more than an hour. They then removed his cuffs and left him to his fate in the cold winter. By the time he was taken to a hospital, all the medical staff could do was pronounce him dead, probably from a heart attack induced by the trauma he had just suffered at the hands of some heartless soldiers. This might be an extreme case, but it is not an isolated one and it underlines the importance of the role of the special rapporteur, who has the utmost freedom to champion Palestinians’ human rights in an exceptionally complex political situation.
Israel might have some legitimate reservations about the functioning of the Human Rights Council and some of its decisions, but it has only itself to blame for its behavior in the Occupied Territories coming under increasing international scrutiny. The long litany of human rights abuses — including detaining people without trial, holding people at checkpoints for hours without any reason, not to mention killing and maiming others and letting settler violence go unchecked and unpunished — could not go on forever without international condemnation.
Israel’s objections to criticisms of its behavior toward the Palestinians, and to those candidates who have called for measures to be taken against Israel, would gain more credibility were it to show sincerity in promoting peaceful coexistence based on a two-state solution that guarantees equal human and political rights to everyone between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
After 55 years of occupation, it is in the hands of Israel to alter this discourse by rethinking its actions. Instead of attacking the messengers and trying to silence them, it would do well to consider working together with the new special rapporteur to find ways to ensure everyone’s human rights without compromising anyone’s security.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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