United Nations – WHO
One evening last month, the young man from Afghanistan, of Hazara ethnicity, arrived in Jakarta. His people-smuggler dropped him at the UNHCR entrance reserved for refugees, where he was told to wait.
The next day, mid-morning, he was still outside waiting to speak to someone. He was too afraid to give me his name or even his age, but he appeared to be in his early 20s.
He had been fleeing for 20 days, ten days hiding in wait in Kabul, then another ten days in transit through three countries. His choice to come to Indonesia was based solely on escaping immediately.
Through a translator he said:
I needed to get out quick. I just wanted to come as soon as possible so I came through an agent. My agent brought me here, I have no shelter so I am just waiting for the UNHCR for information.
I’ve been working with a refugee-run school in Indonesia for the past year. There, refugees aren’t allowed access to education or work, and asylum seekers can be arrested at the whim of authorities. This, compounded with chronic waiting, has led to a straining relationship with the UNHCR, the key institution in their lives.
Only 509 of 14,016 people (3.5%) were resettled in Indonesia last year. Of those , only 84 came to Australia. And so far this year, the number of people resettled from Indonesia to Australia is just eight.
Figures like these explain why, for many months now, the UNHCR office in Jakarta has been the subject of ongoing protests made up of street protests outside the building in the city centre and civil disobedience in the upscale suburb of Kalideres. Refugees and asylum seekers have refused to vacate a disused military building temporarily allocated to them.
Refugees argue the very existence of the UNHCR Jakarta office is a kind of false advertising.
Twenty-four-year-old Ali Jawad Haidari has been in Indonesia for over seven years. He said:
If you cannot support refugees you should close your office. You should say we cannot support refugees, announce in the media we cannot do anything.
At Kalideres, the broken trust is visceral. People question the staff’s willingness to prosecute cases, and why they visited Kalideres with security guards when there was never a hint of violence in the months of protest (and for that matter, why they were not allowed to enter the main UNHCR building through the front door).
They also questioned the ethics of the UNHCR, when the institution offered a one-off payment of roughly a month’s living expenses to the refugees in exchange for leaving the Kalideres site. The refugees initially thought this would be the beginning of ongoing UNHCR support.
And they questioned why the agency supposed to protect them would turn off their electricity and water.
In fact, “The UNHCR is making me sick” is a refrain I heard multiple times during interviews.
Hassan Ramazan, a spokesperson for the Hazara refugees at Kalideres, said the sit-in protests exist because their community and the relatives who support them by sending cash, are at breaking point. He said:
There are people here since 2009, 10, 11, 12, 13, their supporters can not support them any more.
Ramazan also points to the seeming arbitrariness of resettlement. Interview wait times to determine refugee status vary, with some who arrived more recently resettled than those who’ve been waiting for years.
What’s more, single men believe they are treated with suspicion in western countries. Twenty-eight-year-old Muhammad Hanif is one of those single men, who received his refugee registration in 2013. He said:
Lots of singles have been here seven or eight years, we also pray for families to be resettled, but also for us, it should be fair.
And Haidari points out people may have arrived alone but are still family members – brothers, sons, fathers.
My friend arrived alone and is still waiting. Recently his 13-year-old son was injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, spent two months in hospital, and still the UNHCR said they can’t do anything.
My friend when he came here his son was six, now he’s 13-years-old and injured.
Waiting is a contemporary strategy of migration management.
But chronic waiting must be taken into account in refugee policy, as it causes and prolongs psycho-social damage and changes the nature of societal and institutional relationships.
For the majority of refugees, chronic waiting is unlikely to result in effective protection unless a refugee’s country of origin becomes safe to return to. This is unlikely in the foreseeable future for the major refugee producing countries.
Even in countries with major refugee populations, their plight is mostly ignored.
But not always. In Malaysia – where the refugee population is ten times that of Indonesia and work has been informally accessed for years – there are moves to make work legal for refugees.
Work could help alleviate economic pressures and restore agency and dignity lost in waiting. But the refugees are keenly aware of Indonesia’s local poverty and insecure work conditions. And because Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is not obliged to look after refugees.
Nevertheless, ways for refugees to sustain themselves are supposedly being discussed in Indonesia.
For Haidari, a martial arts champion, work would solve many of his problems. But the authorities have stopped him from competing. He said:
If I could just fight I would never knock on the UNHCR door again.
Refugee spokesperson Ramazan doesn’t see work rights as the ultimate solution, but he does ask what sort of generation is being created. They’re living on the streets, without access to education or the example of seeing their parents work.
Thirty-seven-year-old Masooma, who is in the Kalideres complex with her husband and two-year-old daughter, has another, pointed, question.
They say the first priority is for people with critical problems, who are sick, and that’s the reason resettlement is slow.
Since they don’t give us support and assistance of course we will get sick, and then what should we do with that process? What will we do if we get sick and then go to another country?
Essentially, there is no point in breaking people, then helping them.
Australia has enjoyed 27 years of continuous economic growth, arguably more than any other developed country. Almost alone among developed economies, we managed to avoid a recession during the global financial crisis. Employment is at an all-time high, due mainly to a surge in the labour force participation of women, from 40% to 56% of all women over the past three decades.
This success was built on a contract – partly explicit, but mostly implicit – in which the bulk of the population agreed to support contentious reforms in exchange for a guarantee that they wouldn’t be left behind.
The Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report published this week by the National Sustainable Development Council in partnership with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute finds that contract has become fragile. Although the economy is much larger than it was, since 2012 disposable income per capita has barely grown at all.
Our AAA credit rating is at risk from our reliance on foreign capital for investment (mostly borrowed), our high household debt and our narrow industry base.
High employment masks high inequality and entrenched disadvantage. Although the unemployment rate has fallen from 6.5% to 5.5% since the turn of the century, underemployment (where people work fewer hours than they want to) has climbed from 6.5% to 8.5%. Since the crisis the proportion of the unemployed who have been out of work more than a year has climbed from 14% to 24%. Low-skilled men, younger Australians, women with children, and Indigenous Australians find working more challenging than the headline figure suggests.
Wages growth fell to an all time low after the economic crisis and has yet to recover.
As a vast country, connectivity is critical to our prosperity. By and large, we meet the need well through investment in physical infrastructure. But rapid population growth in our big cities and political considerations have made it more difficult.
Our cities and regions offer a very high quality of life, but are evolving by default rather than design. Planning isn’t guided by a consensus about the desired pattern of economic and population growth. The result is low-density cities (far lower than comparable overseas cities) meaning long commutes and social isolation for many.
As house prices have surged, our household debt has climbed from 70% of GDP in 2000 to 120% of GDP today. Home ownership has become more difficult, with many only able to afford options that come with poor access to services and jobs. We are now vulnerable to falling house prices, rising interest rates and global uncertainty.
Our open and flexible economy has benefited from dynamism offered by new people, new ideas and new investment. Strength in industries such as international education delivers not only a sizeable brain gain, but also new and important relationships, particularly in our rapidly growing region.
But these successes disguise our wider failure to diversify our economic base. Economic complexity (EC) measures the depth (sophistication) and breadth (diversity) of what a nation sells to the world. It is a strong predictor of economic prospects.
While the EC measure has limitations for a heavily resource-intensive and service-based economy, Australia’s low and deteriorating ranking, 86th in the world, is consistent with other indicators.
Our high investment in physical capital contrasts sharply with our comparatively low investment in knowledge-based capital. Knowledge-based capital encompasses not only research and development, but also software and data, design, marketing and organisational capabilities.
Australia’s business investment in R&D has fallen consistently since the crisis. We rely far more heavily than other nations on indirect R&D tax incentives, leaving less room for more direct approaches.
Innovative nations stimulate both public and private sector innovation through mission-driven approaches. With a few exceptions, Australia does not. We do not attempt to leverage our strengths in fields such as health, education and water, or to meet societal needs, such as those for reduced emissions, sustainable food, better population health or less inequality.
A more robust and resilient Australia would be built on a broader base of industries and capabilities. It would address goals that were more than merely economic and adopt as a goal a smaller environmental footprint.
Getting there would require us to develop a shared vision of what we want. We are doing well overall, and badly in places, without quite knowing what we are trying to achieve.
Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report is an initiative of the National Sustainable Development Council to assess Australia’s progress against the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Released almost exactly a year after the start of devastating violence that drove 671,500 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh within a matter of months, the report found conclusive evidence that Myanmar’s armed forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Using the strongest language to date, the report calls for the Myanmar commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and five generals to be prosecuted.
The UN Human Rights Council formed a Rohingya investigating commission in March 2017, five months before the start of the violence that led to the mass flight of Rohingya refugees. The initial reason for the commission was a five-month military “area clearance operations” in Rohingya communities from October 2016 to February 2017, which resulted in widespread allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes.
The commission was set up to investigate alleged human rights violations by military, “with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.” The August 2017 violence occurred after the commission had already begun, but obviously gave it more to investigate.
The “area clearance operations” were triggered by attacks against security forces on October 9, 2016, by a new militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). What really spurred the military into action was that the same day as the attacks, the organisation uploaded a series of 11 videos calling for international funding and fighters to join their jihad to liberate northern Rakhine State for the Rohingya – links were quickly found between the leader and the Taliban.
Apparently fearing a situation similar to the ISIS-linked Marawi crisis in the Philippines, the Myanmar army launched massive operations. But this military action failed to root out ARSA, and they responded with a second, much larger attack on August 25, 2017.
The Myanmar government quickly labelled the coordinated attacks by ARSA on over 30 security posts on a single night as “terrorism”. In response, the military quickly launched even more brutal counter-terrorist operations.
Obviously, any government must respond to violence perpetrated against its security forces. But the UN commission has been investigating alleged human rights abuses by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya people as a whole, as they tried to contain the armed threat.
The onset of brutal military action in their communities led to mass panic by Rohingya communities. Over half the Rohingya in Myanmar were so terrified they abandoned everything and fled to Bangladesh. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) quickly estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya died in the military violence in the first month alone. Total Rohingya deaths were perhaps over 13,000 people.
By March 2018, the UNHCR counted 671,500 Rohingya who had fled Myanmar since August 25, 2017. Counting those who had fled earlier violence, the UNHCR was looking after 836,210 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh.
Given some remain outside the camps, the Bangladeshi authorities claim 1,092,136 Rohingya refugees are now sheltering in their country. Only about 500,000-600,000 Rohingya Muslims now remain in Myanmar, and their situation is very vulnerable.
With allegations of Rohingya links to terrorism, some elements are trying to isolate these Rohingya villages and drive them out. On the other hand, there are many others locals rebuilding relations with local Rohingya.
The Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released this week found conclusive evidence that the army and security forces had indeed engaged in mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya, with “genocidal intent”. It therefore recommended that the UN Security Council should refer the Myanmar commander-in-chief and five generals to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or an ad hoc international criminal tribunal. The report also suggested that ARSA might be guilty of war crimes too, and should be held to account.
The report said that Nobel Peace Prize-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her government “contributed” to the atrocities through “acts and omissions”. This is a serious critique, and the international community must continue to demand she and her government change policy direction on the Rohingya.
The report authors strongly criticised Suu Kyi in particular, for not using her moral or political authority to stem the hate speech or apparently attempt to limit the military response. However, the passive role described in this report does not leave her open to international prosecution.
With serious mass atrocity crimes now documented, it is now urgent that the power of the army be reined in. The Myanmar army must be brought under civilian, parliamentary oversight, and the key perpetrators be at very least removed from position. The military have clearly demonstrated that they need formal oversight, and that their current senior leadership are unfit for command.
Myanmar has long demonstrated its ability to be belligerent to the international community, and that it is prepared to isolate itself in the face of international criticism. If this occurs now, 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and up to 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar remain in peril.
The perpetrators of mass crimes must be removed. But we must be careful that dogged pursuit of individuals for prosecution does not so undermine any hope of cooperation by the military and government, and thus further jeopardise the future and wellbeing of the Rohingya themselves.
The repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar is urgent, before all chance of them returning to their own land is removed. But repatriation plans to date don’t sufficiently guarantee their security and human rights guarantees. The international community needs to push for this, and engage more strongly than ever with the Myanmar authorities in achieving this outcome.
Likewise, the international community must commit resources now to ensure the security and future of the 600,000 or so Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. Much work must be done on strengthening social cohesion, and facilitating the sort of social change that would prepare the local population for accepting all the refugees back too. Now is not the time for broad sanctions and isolation, but engagement for the sake of the Rohingya.
This week, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women handed down its recommendations from its review of Australia’s compliance with the women’s rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
The UN delivered a scathing critique of Australia’s failures to protect and promote the rights of women and girls.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is a UN treaty body, made up of 23 independent experts from around the world, and its key functions include:
examining state parties’ implementation of rights under the convention
making recommendations detailing how state parties can improve compliance with the convention
accepting individual complaints about violations of rights under the convention
The committee noted areas of improvement, including marriage equality, the introduction of the paid parental leave scheme and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status and family responsibilities.
However, it also issued over 90 recommendations for improvement, demonstrating that negative aspects far outweigh progress on women’s rights.
Human rights framework
The committee reiterated its 2010 recommendations that Australia should introduce a charter of rights. The Committee also recommended that Australia harmonise state, federal and territory discrimination laws to enhance their effectiveness in prohibiting discrimination against women.
The committee denounced funding cuts to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and emphasised the importance of the government respecting the independence of the commission.
Violence against women and sexual harassment
The committee noted the endemic nature of violence against women, with one in three women experiencing physical violence, and almost one in five women experiencing sexual violence. The committee recommended that the government reinforce efforts to change behaviours that lead to violence against women. This includes encouraging reporting violence, and adequately funding services under the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.
The committee raised the prevalence of sexual harassment, and recommended that the government take into account the outcomes of the national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, encourage reporting and impose appropriate sanctions on perpetrators.
Women’s economic disadvantage
The committee condemned the government’s lack of gender budget analysis. It said:
The Committee considers that some of the State party’s recent cuts to social, health, education and justice budgets, reduction of taxes for high income groups and increase of the defence budget represent a setback…
It recommended the government take immediate measures to mitigate the effect of recent budget cuts on women, implement gender-responsive budgeting in the allocation of public resources, and reinstate the funding of services catering to women’s rights.
Access to justice
The committee criticised funding cuts to legal assistance services, and urged the government to implement the recommendations of the 2014 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Access to Justice. This includes ensuring adequate funding for community legal centres and legal aid.
The committee raised concern at provisions in funding agreements that restrict the ability of community legal centres and civil society organisations to advocate for women’s rights, and recommended the government remove provisions from funding agreements that restrict freedom of expression.
Treatment of diverse groups of women
The committee recognised that diverse groups of women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, LGBTI women, women with disability, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugee women and older women experience greater barriers to accessing and enforcing their rights.
These include discrimination, lack of access to appropriate services, higher risk of violence, higher unemployment and homelessness rates, and lower representation in public life. The committee recommended numerous measures to improve gender equality for diverse groups of women.
The release of these recommendations comes at a time of great uncertainty in international human rights. We’re seeing a disturbing retreat from fundamental human rights principles and institutions across the world.
While Australia has been using its seat on the Human Rights Council to advocate at the international level for the rights of women and girls, the gap between our global leadership on gender equality and the reality faced by women and girls in the Australian community is stark.
Australia has an extremely poor record of implementing treaty body recommendations. During the committee’s review of Australia last month, the Australian government, while stating that it takes its international obligations “incredibly seriously”, admitted that on most fronts it had no plans to amend laws or policies to improve protection of the rights of women and girls in the Australian community.
As part of the committee’s follow-up procedure, Australia must explain to the committee what steps it has taken to implement priority recommendations within two years.
The committee’s four priority recommendations focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, funding for women’s services, reproductive rights, and ending offshore processing of refugees.
The challenge for Australia is to engage positively with the committee’s recommendations and implement changes to improve human rights for women and girls at home
Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre UNSW; Lecturer, UNSW Human Rights Clinic, UNSW and Tess Deegan, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor at Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW
Editor’s note: This is a longer read
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have announced the US was withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council (“HRC”).
In doing so, they claimed the council was a roadblock to genuine global human rights protection. This move by the Trump administration has been anticipated for some time. In a sense, the elephant has left the room. But in doing so, the elephant has belled the cat on a number of serious issues regarding the HRC.
Is the United States’ decision sound in terms of international human rights protection? Is it one that Australia, an HRC member from 2018-2020, should follow?
The UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which ran from 1947 to 2006. By the time of its demise, the commission was criticised from all sides for being overly politicised.
The HRC’s 47 seats are divided between the five official UN regions in the following way: Africa (13); Asia (13); Latin America and the Caribbean (8); Western Europe and Other (7); Eastern Europe (6). The US (and Australia) is in the Western Europe and Other Group, known as WEOG.
One-third of the council is elected each year by the UN General Assembly, and members serve three-year terms. No member may serve more than two consecutive terms. A member can also be suspended from the council in a vote of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly: Libya was suspended in 2011 after Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters and armed dissidents. No other member has been suspended.
The HRC meets three times a year for a total of around ten weeks. Its 38th session has just begun. It also meets for one-day special sessions at the initiative of one-third of its members. It has so far held 28 special sessions.
The HRC’s functions include the drafting and adoption of new human rights standards, as arose in its first year with the adoption of new treaties dealing with the rights of people with a disability and the scourge of enforced disappearances, as well as the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
The HRC also authorises independent investigations into particular human rights issues, either thematic (dealing with a human rights issue such as torture or LGBTI rights) or, more controversially, focused on a particular state. At the time of writing, there are 46 thematic mandates and 12 country mandates for these “special rapporteurs”.
It has one major new function compared to its predecessor, the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”), whereby the human rights record of every UN member is reviewed by the HRC (as well as all other “observer” nations) every five years.
The US’ grievances against the HRC arise with regard to the human rights records of its members, and its politicised character. Its key red line concern seems to be the HRC’s “unconscionable” and “chronic bias” against Israel (to quote from this morning’s press conference). These issues are examined in turn below.
Membership criteria as they stand are very soft: candidates commit to the highest standards of human rights, and states should take into account a nominee’s human rights record when voting. Both of these rules are basically unenforceable.
Human rights criteria were mooted as prerequisites for membership when the HRC was created. However, the UN’s nearly 200 members could not agree on substantive criteria, as they have very different views on human rights. The US, for example, wanted only “democratic nations” to be eligible. Such a criterion would have led to debates over the meaning of “democracy”, and would seem to prioritise civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural ones. A focus on the implementation of economic and social rights might have led to the exclusion from eligibility of the US itself.
In any case, the “measurement” and respective ranking of human rights records across states is contentious. While comparisons between two states may lead to easy conclusions over which one is better or worse, it is a fraught exercise across the entirety of the UN membership.
Procedural criteria, such as a nation’s record on ratification of human rights treaties, would be more objective. However, such criteria might have led to the exclusion of the two most powerful countries in the world – the US and China, which have both failed to ratify crucial treaties. Realpolitik indicates that such an outcome is very unlikely.
In the press conference, Haley and Pompeo decried the presence of human rights abusers on the council, including China, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Consternation has also commonly been expressed over the common presence of Saudi Arabia and Russia on the HRC. Certainly, none of those states is remotely close to upholding the highest standards of human rights. Haley and Pompeo went further, claiming that these states manipulate the HRC to shield abusers and target blameless states in its resolutions.
So how bad is the HRC membership? Freedom House is a non-government organisation (NGO) that rates states as “free”, “partly free”, or “not free”, according to certain civil and political rights criteria, such as press freedom. While Freedom House’s methodology is assailable, I will use its rankings in assessing the current HRC, as the US itself historically uses them in making certain policy choices.
2018 is in fact one of the worst years in terms of the numbers of non-free HRC members. Nevertheless, free states always outnumber unfree states on the HRC, and can easily pass or block any resolution with the cooperation of just a few partly free states, if they vote together.
Any problem with “bad” resolutions on the HRC arises not from a preponderance of bad states, but from bloc voting within regions, like-minded groups and alliances.
Nevertheless, one can still fairly criticise the HRC for containing 14 non-free states. How do such states get elected?
A major problem for HRC elections is the issue of “clean slates”, whereby the number of candidates presented by a UN region correlates exactly to the number of seats it is scheduled to have elected at any particular time. For example, a region might put forward only two candidates for two seats. In such circumstances, the various candidates’ election seems to be a fait accompli. This phenomenon of clean slates was what Pompeo was referring to when he said that some states were elected by a rigged, collusive process.
Yet clean slates are a problem with all of the UN regions. The US itself was initially elected to the HRC on a clean slate in 2009. Australia was elected to the HRC on a WEOG clean slate in 2017, due to France’s belated withdrawal of its candidature.
Genuine elections do occur when open slates are presented by regions. This is how Russia was rejected in 2016, an unprecedented and humiliating blow that probably led to Russia’s failure to even stand for election in 2017. Other serious human rights abusers, such as Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka and Belarus, have failed to gain seats in similar circumstances.
Although states are elected on a regional basis, each member must still attain the majority of votes in the general assembly in order to be elected. There remains a possibility that an unacceptable candidate will simply not reach that threshold, even in the case of a clean slate.
That possibility has in the past led to the late replacement of controversial candidates, such as Syria’s replacement by Kuwait in 2011. This author eagerly awaits the day when the General Assembly finally flexes its muscle by refusing to elect an entire clean slate, thus depriving a region of a seat for a year. Such an outcome, in the absence of a relevant reform, is one way to dissuade future clean slates.
Finally, while states – particularly WEOG countries – might rail against the awful records of other members, those sentiments might not be reflected in their actual voting. After all, voting is by secret ballot. For example, given that Saudi Arabia is a key US geopolitical ally, it seems likely that the US (and even Australia) has voted for it on occasion. Certainly, the UK seems to have done so.
The US is correct that membership criteria should be revisited. Certain obstacles could be put in the way of the worst abusers, such as compulsory open slates, public voting (which might help prevent UK votes for Saudi Arabia), and a requirement that an eligible state must allow visits by all special rapporteurs.
As the HRC’s members are representatives of their governments, the HRC is a highly politicised body, like its predecessor. State governments are political constructs, so any institution made up of government representatives is inevitably political too.
Unfortunately, states will generally vote in favour of their national interests rather than human rights interests if the two should clash. Pompeo inadvertently admitted that this morning, when he praised Haley by saying that she always put “American interests first”.
Politicisation inevitably leads to the manifestation of political biases. The most notorious HRC bias concerns Israel. It seems that the US’ biggest complaint over the HRC, and the “red line” that has led to its withdrawal, is the HRC’s treatment of Israel.
The HRC is biased against Israel. It has aimed a disproportionate number of resolutions against that country. The HRC’s regular agenda of ten items contains only one item that focuses on a particular state, that state being Israel.
Its special rapporteur mandate stands until the occupation is over, so its renewal is automatic rather than the subject of periodic debate, as is the case with other mandates. The mandate-holder investigates its actions rather than those of the Palestinian authorities, whose abuses are largely ignored.
Israel has been the subject of more special sessions than any other state (more than a quarter of the 28 sessions). Having said that, it was the subject of the first three special sessions in 2006, and four of the first six, so the “hit rate” of 4 out of 22 is less stark since then.
Why is the HRC preoccupied with Israel? For a start, Israel has committed serious human rights abuses that are worthy of the HRC’s condemnation. It is absurd for Pompeo to have implicitly suggested that Israel has “committed no offence”. Any HRC bias does not mean that the substance of its criticisms is wrong. The recent killings of Palestinian protesters, targeted killings, illegal settlements, forced evictions, war crimes, the Gaza blockade and, most fundamentally, an ongoing occupation of Palestine that has lasted for more than 50 years, will cause critics to proliferate.
Nevertheless, that does not explain the HRC’s disproportionate attention to one country, given the scale of human rights abuses by other states that receive far less attention.
Ardent supporters of Israel often contend that the bias is driven by anti-Semitism. While such a motivation cannot be dismissed, there are other reasons that seem likely to be driving this phenomenon. The equation of “anti-Israel” with “anti-Semitic” is simplistic.
Israel has many enemies among UN states. Some have never accepted Israel’s right to exist, believing that it was established illegitimately on Arab (Palestinian) land. Indeed, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation was set up in 1969 to unite Muslim states after the 1967 war in which Israel seized the occupied territories, so opposition to Israel has been an article of faith since its inception. The OIC routinely brings as much diplomatic pressure to bear on Israel as possible. As OIC states straddle the two biggest UN groupings, Africa and Asia, they can rely on significant bloc solidarity for support in their initiatives.
The racial element, whereby the Jewish State of Israel illegally occupies lands populated by Arabs in the occupied territories, attracts the ire of developing states, which have historical grievances regarding racial oppression. Yet other instances of racial tension – such as the oppression of the Tibetans, the Kurds, the West Papuans, the Tamils or the Chechens – fail to attract the same HRC scrutiny.
One difference is that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories is not recognised as legitimate by any other state, unlike for example China’s sovereignty over Tibet or Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua.
Indeed, increasing numbers of states have diplomatically recognised the occupied territories as the State of Palestine, and the UN General Assembly voted in 2012 to recognise Palestine as a non-member state.
Occupation also allows states to feel safe in attacking Israel without being too hypocritical. While human rights abuses are sadly common, the status of “occupier” is rare. Indeed, Israel is sometimes seen as a remnant of colonialism, and its actions certainly breach the right of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter.
However, Israel is not the only occupier. Morocco has long annexed the [Western Sahara], yet the global silence on that situation is deafening in comparison.
Israel is also seen as a surrogate for the West, particularly the US. Given that Israel is almost always defended within the UN by the US, and is often defended by much of WEOG, the question of “Israel-bashing” has become part of a greater North/South divide in the UN. Anti-American states such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Russia see Israel as a US surrogate in the Middle East, and exploit the issue accordingly.
Bias against Israel is matched by biased displays of support for Israel by its allies, such as the US and Australia. For example, the US instinctively presumed that the recent border killings were justified. Past bombings of Gaza (in 2009 and 2012) have been blithely dismissed by Australia as an exercise of Israel’s right to self-defence. But a legitimate case of self-defence can still result in an illegal use of excessive, indiscriminate or unnecessary force.
Regardless of its causes, the HRC’s perceived bias against Israel is counterproductive. It provides Israel with a ready-made argument to reject even legitimate condemnation, thus providing cover for human rights abuses. Indeed, claims of bias (within and outside the UN) have become a dominant part of the Middle East narrative on both sides, detracting from a focus on the actions of the actual protagonists. It has facilitated Israel’s progressive disillusionment with and disengagement from the UN, and now, the disengagement of the US. It reduces the HRC’s credibility and opens it up to charges of hypocrisy. None of these outcomes is useful for those who sincerely wish for improvements in human rights for all in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.
Finally, the biggest problem with the focus on Israel is the corresponding lack of focus on other serious human rights situations. While it is impossible to demand or expect that a political body, or even an apolitical one, should achieve perfect balance in its human rights focuses, it is fair to expect that such focuses not be way out of balance.
Haley and Pompeo reassured us that the US will continue to play a leadership role in human rights, despite its withdrawal from the HRC. And certainly, the US’ role on the HRC was in many ways positive. For example, it took the lead in addressing impunity in Sri Lanka. The WEOG group suffers from some dysfunctionality on the part of EU states, which generally seek a common position. Strong non-EU voices are important in this regard.
Yet the US is as political as other players on the HRC. Just as some states instinctively oppose Israel, the US instinctively supports it. Neither position is principled. The US has also protected other allies, such as Bahrain.
Outside the HRC, US President Donald Trump is not a credible leader on human rights. He seems to have an affinity with leaders with horrible records, such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Most recently, he responded to comments about North Korea’s human rights record, which is possibly the worst in the world, by praising the “talented” Kim Jong-un.
And of course, the US has long had its own serious human rights problems, which are too numerous to mention, but which include torture and the highest proportion of incarceration in the world. Its recent decision to separate migrant children from their parents and intern them reflects its status as the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Furthermore, it is nonsense for Pompeo to suggest that the HRC had sought to infringe on US sovereignty. This betrays a serious misunderstanding of the concept of sovereignty, indicating that it dictates immunity from criticism. It does not.
The US is correct to note there are major deficiencies in the current HRC. Is its response therefore the correct one? If so, that would seem to indicate that Australia should also quit the HRC. It is very unlikely that Australia will do so.
The HRC is the peak global intergovernmental human rights body, which may represent the world of today, warts and all. The battle for universal human rights observance will not be won by adopting an “us and them” mentality, which excludes significant numbers of countries in the world from “the human rights club”. Such a solution is more likely to lead to balkanised human rights discussions, and possible competing institutions inside and outside the UN.
The HRC must remain a forum where non-like-minded states, and civil society, can talk to each other, and occasionally cross divides to make important human rights decisions.
Furthermore, the HRC is meant to be a political body. Other parts of the UN human rights machinery are made up of independent human rights experts, and accordingly take a more impartial approach than the HRC. While their human rights findings are more credible, it also seems that states generally take their findings less seriously.
States tend to care more about what their peers think than what human rights experts might think. Hence, human rights would suffer in the absence of a relevant intergovernmental global body.
Despite its flaws, the HRC does make decisions that benefit human rights, even in the face of political lobbying by members with scurrilous motives. For example, a special rapporteur was appointed to investigate Iran (after the application of US pressure), and it remains in place, despite that influential country’s forceful efforts to dismantle the mandate. A special rapporteur on LGBTI rights was appointed in 2016, despite fierce opposition from the OIC and homophobic states, due to an alliance of developed and developing states, and civil society.
The HRC will continue to be an imperfect institution for as long as the UN is made up of states with imperfect human rights records. However, the council still can and must be improved.
But the worst way to achieve that goal is by just walking away.
As a former aid worker, I often wondered about what happened to the projects I worked on years later. Did the anti-corruption commission we founded itself become corrupt? Having given grants to women to start businesses, did the men allow them to work? And what about the community trained in maintaining the water pumps – did they see through their part of the bargain?
Evaluations, lauded by donors, report on a moment of time when the gloss is still shining. We don’t care, or possibly dare, to look back five or ten years later to see what happened.
I did. I wanted to know what happened to the projects and the people from a decade of aid work spanning East Timor, Iraq and South Sudan. I bought airline tickets, wrangled visas, and set off on a journey that changed my view of the aid industry.
These trips weren’t about measuring the impact of certain projects, as too much time had passed. They were more about understanding. My colleagues and I had started along a journey without knowing how the story would end.
My first return visit was to South Sudan. It came nearly a decade after I had worked supporting a refugee camp in Wau, which was established in the late 1990s following a civil war and famine.
The camp had established itself organically, so there was a spaghetti logic to its layout. By the time I had arrived in the early 2000s, international attention had moved on, so there were limited resources available. My job was to wind down and close out activities.
A decade later, the camp had become a small town struggling to survive. Water pumps and wash points were mostly broken. We’d trained people on how to maintain them, but the government that had agreed to provide the spare parts appeared to have had a change of heart.
It took some time before I learned that the state officials refused to give the former refugees property rights. As a result, families didn’t invest in their homes for fear of making them even more attractive for appropriation.
After South Sudan I returned to Iraq, travelling first to the north and then to Najaf, the centre of religious learning and home to Iraq’s powerful Shi’a Ayatollahs.
Iraq didn’t face the same shortage of resources as South Sudan: quite the opposite. There was more money than ideas.
I first arrived in Iraq a few months after the invasion in 2003; I moved straight to my posting in the conservative cities of Najaf and Karbala. We rehabilitated water treatment plants and parts of the regional hospital, provided psychosocial support to children, helped the disabled, and distributed humanitarian aid.
We were a one-stop shop for assistance, competing with the government and local religious charities.
Returning several years later and speaking with the governor, an ayatollah, and former staff who had become politicians and community leaders, the consensus was that had we not arrived, it would have only been a matter of months – or at most a year – before the same work would have been done by the authorities or the local community.
From the deserts of Iraq, my final stop was the lush tropics of East Timor. This was where I started my aid career in 2000 as a shelter engineer.
A decade separated the shelter distribution and my return visit. My memories had faded, but luckily I had stayed in touch with a former colleague who undertook the journey with me.
We were on the trail of houses built from a shelter distribution program. Surprisingly, many were still standing, with extensions and improvements tacked on. The pressing issue then – and what was evident during my return visit – wasn’t a lack of money, but how it was spent.
The then sovereign authority, the United Nations, had treated its responsibility as a factory production line churning out widgets, rather than as community development. It implemented off-the-shelf projects in an accelerated timeframe.
Plans called for consultation and engagement, but the reality became a race toward inputs and outputs. The culture of the international bureaucracy had won over the culture of the people.
Through a mix of hitching rides on military convoys, slipping into Iraq on a pilgrim’s visa, or relying upon the goodwill of former colleagues, I managed to achieve what I had set out to – meet with beneficiaries, former staff and local leaders to hear what they thought about our work.
Each person had a story to tell; each place had a different lesson. But what was true in every location was the importance of the people.
The “stuff” we gave, the “things” we built: they became worn and broken. But the people we worked with, invested in and empowered continued to develop and grow. They took the skills and experience with them to new lives as business, community and political leaders who continued to transform their countries long after we had departed.
It’s a salient lesson to remember: the one and only truly sustainable activity we do is help people help themselves.
Denis Dragovic’s new book No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis is published by Odyssey Books.