Israel’s unilateral decision to withdraw from a periodic review of its human rights record risks undermining international accountability and the rule of law, according to the International Service for Human Rights.
The Human Rights Council resolved on 29 January to postpone the Universal Periodic Review of Israel after the state indicated that it would not cooperate with the process. This is the first time that a state has withdrawn from the UPR, which is the preeminent international mechanism by which the human rights record of every state is systematically reviewed by all 193 states which comprise the UN.
‘The UPR provides an important opportunity for the international community to constructively engage with the state under review in order to ensure accountability for international obligations and to discuss ways to better promote and protect human rights on the ground. It is also a critical forum for human rights defenders and non-government organisations to voice their concerns about the recognition and protection of human rights in the country under review,’ said Michael Ineichen of the International Service for Human Rights.
In a major speech last Thursday, US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahoe said ‘Over the past three years, the Human Rights Council…has successfully focused global attention on some of the most egregious human rights violators, and provided a forum where the voices of human rights defenders are heard.’
In resolving to defer the review of Israel, the Human Rights Council directed its President to ‘take all appropriate steps and measures, in accordance with his mandate, to urge the State under Review to resume its cooperation with the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.’ It also expressed ‘regret’ at Israel's non-cooperation.
The International Service for Human Rights called on the Human Rights Council to develop a clear procedure to deal with future instances of non-cooperation. ‘The Council must ensure that this instance of non-cooperation does not undermine the universality or integrity of the UPR as a mechanism for constructive international human rights dialogue or accountability,’ said Mr Ineichen.
‘ISHR calls on the Council to ensure that, in future, there is a clear process for dealing with a state which withdraws from the UPR. The process must ensure that the voices of human rights defenders can be heard even in the absence of the state and that the state is appropriately sanctioned for its non-cooperation.’
Background to this development:
In May 2012, Israel formally announced to the United Nations that it would ‘suspend its cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council and its subsequent mechanisms’.
In light of the review of Israel under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) the representative for the Permanent Mission of Israel in Geneva contacted the newly elected president of the Council, Mr Remiguisz Henczel to request a postponement of Israel’s review.
On 29 January 2013, the date of Israel’s proposed review, the delegation did not appear. The working group meeting of the UPR was adjourned, and an organisational meeting of the Council was convened in its place to determine how to proceed.
States were extremely concerned by Israel’s non-cooperation; as the first instance in which a State has failed to appear for its review Israel’s decision presents a unique challenge for the Council, and is potentially extremely damaging to the universal nature of the UPR process.
It was noted that the UPR has been the Council’s biggest achievement to date; the concept of this multilateral peer review is deeply rooted in the principles of universality and cooperation that have characterised the process until this point.
Israel’s failure to appear for its UPR could have serious repercussions, and this was a point strongly emphasised by a number of States: ‘the Council seriously risks opening a breach in the system by allowing a delay of nine months in submitting a report,’ as the Turkish delegate emphasised; others maintained the system would be seriously undermined if this case was not dealt with seriously. Several delegates noted that such behaviour could pave the way for other States to renege on their own obligations under the UPR.
Another important point that flows from the setting of such a precedent is the denial of a forum for civil society engagement in the United Nations system. Human rights defenders in particular rely on States’ cooperation with the UPR to voice their concerns and ensure international accountability.
A decision, ‘The non-cooperation of a State under Review with the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism’, was discussed and adopted at the organisational meeting. It postpones the review of Israel until the 17th session of the UPR at the latest and ‘decides to consider this approach as a precedent to be applied to all similar circumstances of non-cooperation in the future’. The generalisation of this particular case potentially opens a worrying avenue for other States to seek to postpone their own reviews.