By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 17 -- The U.N. General Assembly voted 156 to 7 on Friday to condemn Israel for "indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force" in its military offensive in Gaza, during an emergency session that provided scores of U.N. members with a familiar platform to excoriate the Jewish state's policies in the region. Six countries abstained.
The vote came less than a week after the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for launching a Nov. 8 missile strike that killed 18 civilians in the town of Beit Hanoun. Palestinian representative Riyad Mansour opened the session by calling for "an end to this rampant Israeli campaign, which intends to destroy an entire people."
Friday's meeting comes in a year in which the United Nations' human rights bodies have intensified their focus on Israel's rights record. U.S. and Israeli officials said the Jewish state is being unfairly singled out by an organization that fails to adequately address Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli towns and has grown increasingly soft on some of the world's worst despots.
The United Nations' new Human Rights Council has passed three resolutions criticizing Israel for abuses during military operations in South Lebanon and Gaza. On Thursday, the 47-member body ordered a fact-finding mission to probe Israeli abuses in Gaza.
The Geneva-based rights council has not passed a single resolution condemning any other country, shielding some of the world's most oppressive regimes from international censure. Belarus and Uzbekistan, meanwhile, succeeded Thursday in gaining passage of a resolution in the General Assembly's Third Committee, which also deals with human rights, that seeks to shield countries from scrutiny of their human rights records.
U.S. officials said Friday's action in the General Assembly was undermining the institution's credibility. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused anti-Israeli extremists of trying to "transform the organization into a forum that is little more than a self-serving and polemical attack against Israel or the United States."
"Since its inception earlier this year, the Human Rights Council has quickly fallen into the same trap and delegitimized itself by focusing attention almost exclusively on Israel," Bolton said. "Meanwhile, it has failed to address real human rights abuse in Burma, Darfur, [North Korea] and other countries."
The council was created this year to improve the United Nations' capacity to confront the world's worst rights abusers. It replaced the Human Rights Commission, whose credibility suffered because of the membership of noted rights abusers, including Zimbabwe and Sudan.
The Bush administration decided not to join the new rights body, citing concerns that it would be manipulated by states with poor human rights records. But it agreed to approve financing for the rights body and participate as an observer.
European diplomats and rights advocates conceded that the new rights council has gotten off to a bad start. But they say it is too early to write it off as a failure.
One European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not been authorized by his government to speak to the press, said that they will begin to confront rights abusers. He noted that the council is already considering resolutions criticizing Sudan and Sri Lanka. "It's not even up and running," the diplomat said. "It has to find its feet."
But some human rights activists say the United States, the European Union and other traditional rights advocates have been outmaneuvered.
Peggy Hicks, a U.N. expert at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Islamic states have targeted Israel by making use of a provision of the council's bylaws that allows the convening of special sessions to address a specific country's abuses.
"There is a real movement by some states with incredibly poor human rights records to seize this moment to push back and make sure that U.N. isn't able to act on human rights," Hicks said.
U.N. diplomats, meanwhile, said the European Union, the United States and other Western governments are taking rights abusers to task. They noted that the General Assembly rights committee passed a resolution condemning North Korea's human rights record. Similar resolutions will be introduced on Belarus, Burma, Iran and Uzbekistan and will be put for a vote next week.