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Is the US Going to Drop Out of the UN Human Rights Council?


Donald Trump at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. His recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel recently has left the United States isolated in the UN Security Council as the body moves to retaliate through a resolution. SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD/WHITE HOUSE

Palestinian causes in the United Nations are gaining wider and more active support in the Arab and Islamic worlds in light of Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in defiance of global opinion and decades of UN resolutions. The move sets the scene for reigniting intense anti-UN activity in United States Congress. There are likely to be inevitable calls to punish the UN by further cuts in US funding to the organization or the withdrawal from more components of the UN system.

In particular peril may be American membership in the UN Human Rights Council.

On Monday, Dec. 18, the Security Council will hear a regular briefing on the Middle East from the UN’s special coordinator for the regional peace process, Nickolay Mladenov. Ten days earlier, he told the Council that Trump’s decision to not only recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but to also relocate the American embassy there from Tel Aviv, as no other country has done, was risking a diplomatic chain reaction that would damage efforts to forge ahead on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Speaking in a CNN interview on Dec.10, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, along the same lines, that he had been “quite hopeful” that the new Trump administration, which is much closer to Israel than the Barack Obama presidency had been, would progress on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. But the moves on Jerusalem risk compromising the effort, as the US is no longer seen as an honest broker in the region.

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A Security Council resolution restating the international position of Jerusalem is expected to be voted on Dec. 18 as well. It was written by the 10 elected members of the Council and Turkey, which separately has announced it intends to open an embassy in East Jerusalem. [Update: The Security Council voted 14-1, with the US vetoing the resolution, the first time in six years it has exercised the no vote as a permanent member.]

Potentially the most serious and immediate flashpoint for the US, however, is the scheduled completion of a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights containing a database of all businesses, Israeli and foreign, that have been involved in Israeli projects in settlements on occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians claim that sector as their capital.

The report is to be completed by Dec.31, 2017, for formal submission to the Human Rights Council in March 2018. As many as 150 companies are reportedly included in the database, a large percentage of them American and Israeli. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has been writing letters to companies whose business activities “raise particular human rights violations concerns,” his office says, following the lead of the Human Rights Council.

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The scope of the potential violations is enormous. The list includes:

  • The supply of equipment and materials facilitating the construction and the expansion of settlements and the wall (separating Israel from the West Bank) and associated infrastructures
  • The supply of surveillance and identification equipment for settlements, the wall and checkpoints directly linked with settlements
  • The supply of equipment for the demolition of housing and property, the destruction of agricultural farms, greenhouses, olive groves and crops
  • The supply of security services, equipment and materials to enterprises operating in settlements
  • The provision of services and utilities supporting the maintenance and existence of settlements, including transport
  • Banking and financial operations helping to develop, expand or maintain settlements and their activities, including loans for housing and the development of businesses
  • The use of natural resources, in particular water and land, for business uses
  • Pollution and the dumping of waste in or its transfer to Palestinian villages
  • Captivity of the Palestinian financial and economic markets as well as practices that disadvantage Palestinian enterprises, including through restrictions on movement, administrative and legal constraints
  • Use of benefits and reinvestments of enterprises owned totally or partly by settlers for developing, expanding and maintaining the settlements

The issue of violations arose after a three-member UN human-rights fact-finding mission on Israeli activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem reported in 2013 that they had documented numerous abuses. Because Israel denied permission to the three — all human-rights experts — to visit the areas in question, the team carried out most of its interviews in Jordan, where a large Palestinian population lives, with close ties to the West Bank.

The Human Rights Council took up the issue in March 2016 and demanded that the database be completed within a year. The high commissioner asked for more time, and the deadline was extended to the end of 2017. The database has apparently been finished, and Zeid has written to companies that have violated a Security Council resolution calling for businesses to make a distinction in their dealings, depending on whether a project was located in recognized Israeli territory or Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Recent reports suggest that some companies, fearing legal problems, have already pulled out.

“The mission notes that the impact of settlements on the human rights of the Palestinians is manifested in various forms and ways,” the fact-finders reported. “These are interrelated, forming part of an overall pattern.”

The report noted the lack of Palestinian self-determination, restrictions impeding Palestinians’ access to and control of their natural resources — water is often a major deprivation — as well as separate and disadvantageous legal codes. Palestinians were exposed personally to acts of violence against them and their property and are “routinely subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, including administrative detention, mass arrests and incarceration,” the report said, adding that many victims are children.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the Human Rights Council’s move, which has outraged many legislators in the US Congress.

“The database will publicly identify businesses that contribute to rights abuses by operating in or with settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Human Rights Watch said. “In doing so, it will build pressure on businesses to stop doing business . . . and for countries to respond to the Security Council’s call in its Resolution 2334 to distinguish between Israeli territory and settlements in their dealings.”

Security Council Resolution 2334 raised a red flag in Congress, where support for Israel is strong. On Dec. 23, 2016, the US, under President Obama, abstained in the Security Council on the resolution condemning Israel. The US withheld its veto as it normally did on measures critical of the Israelis, and the resolution passed 14-0. Some leading Republicans were outraged. Senator Lindsey Graham, now mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state if Rex Tillerson leaves, warned: “The United Nations will regret this vote.”

In the US, other legislators have called the collection of a database “blackmail” and could again threaten to cut off all US funds to the UN, a threat first made after the passage of Resolution 2334. A bill is waiting in Congress to take unspecified actions under US trade or export laws to oppose “boycotts fostered by international governmental organizations against Israel.” It was not expected to pass, but it hasn’t officially died, either.

On the diplomatic front, according to the Security Council Report, an independent research organization in New York, it appears that the Palestinians were involved in drafting the Security Council resolution to be voted on Dec. 18, to counter a defensive declaration on Dec. 8 by Ambassador Nikki Haley, now a steadfast backer of the Israelis.

Traction is also accelerating on a strategy of countering the likely US veto on Dec. 18 by focusing publicly on the argument that 14 members of the Council (if they can be corralled) had backed the Palestinians, leaving the US once again alone. There is also discussion about introducing a resolution in the General Assembly, where there are no vetos but no enforcement authority, either.

In the wake of the White House decisions on Jerusalem, which have been criticized by the 14 members of the 15-member Security Council, leaving the US isolated even among its allies, both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation held high-level emergency meetings colored by rancorous speeches. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Egypt’s Coptic Christian leader, Pope Tawadros II, said they would not meet with Vice President Mike Pence during his current planned trip to the region.

In Geneva, where Haley went in June to list in a speech to the Graduate Institute (not the Human Rights Council itself) America’s demands for Council reform, she made two major points. These were: new rules requiring more open campaigns and demonstrated qualifications for countries seeking membership on the Council (to which the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a major rights abuser, has just been elected); and the removal from the Council’s human-rights agenda of a provision known as Item 7. That singles out Israel for special attention and opprobrium.

Haley warned that if the Council did not reform, the US could go elsewhere to work on human rights. But she avoided answering direct questions about the US pulling out then. Nothing significant has happened since. By the next session of the Council, scheduled for February 26 to March 23, the pressures on her by Congress to show that the Council has listened to her demands is likely to grow more intense, given the turmoil her boss has created in the politics of the Middle East.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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