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Can the USA Protect Israel on the Sidelines of the Human Rights Council?

For the first time in six years, the USA will not have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That’s not by choice: the USA was term-limited from seeking another consecutive term with a vote on the council. Now, it will have to pursue its priorities, including defending Israel from what it considers unfair criticism, from the sidelines.

How exactly the USA will do so was the subject of a talk yesterday by the US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council Keith Harper to the  American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights.

Harper noted that the USA “will continue to [push for a] vote against all resolutions” against Israel that condemn them for violating the human rights of Palestinians.  This is very much  in line with the norm in U.S. politics and policies at UN bodies.  Usual protocol in Geneva dictates that the USA is the one initiate a vote on the Israel resolutions, attempting to quash any threats as soon as possible. However, in the coming year the U.S. will not be able to call for or cast any votes. Instead, Harper noted that they will have to work with “close allies” and ask them to take on the same mission. But the key question is, what allies will be able to carry that water, particularly since the USA doesn’t have a formal vote to ‘exchange?’

Harper insisted that the “U.S. tries to work against one state being treated differently” and that is why they push on the resolutions relating to Israel.  The issue is not that the USA is uncomfortable singling out countries and holding them accountable for their gross violations, but that they have taken the long-held American political view that Israel is singled out more often than others, making the process unfair to them.

Harper did say that the American focus as a non-voting state will be to expand the number of countries the Council evaluates. Explaining that “at least if there’s a hyper focus [on Israel], look at all human rights abusers as well.”

 Going forward Harper said the USA will have a “continuous battle” on Israel, but will work with allies to also advocate for technical reviews and Commissions of Inquiry through the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR). These inquires in which experts are sent into countries to investigate possible violations are one of the most valuable tools of the Council. (Though, he does not deny that in some cases, the very countries needing to be investigated are actually members of the Council itself.)

What remains to be seen is what kind of results the USA can influence without their voting power.

It is true also that other countries that do not have a vote are perhaps equally influential. Harper cited Egypt as particularly impactful in swaying votes, even though it does not have a formal vote.  Has the Obama administration been able to build allies and enough good that the American’s non-voting presence will still have the same kind of power as it used to?

Harper suggested as much.

On certain resolutions that Harper hinted that may be coming in the near future, such as furthering protections for LGBTI persons and the economy-related questions of the ‘right to development,’ U.S. priorities are likely to be reflected in the votes of its allies in Europe and Latin America. Still, on the question of whether Israel can count on some measure of protection now that the U.S. is not officially a voting member, we probably won’t know until the Council takes up the issue next.  But based on Harper’s remarks to the American Jewish Committee, we do know that the USA will certainly try.