Home inFocus Israel (Summer 2019) Calling Out the UN Human Rights Council’s Anti-Israel Bias

Calling Out the UN Human Rights Council’s Anti-Israel Bias

Benjamin Weinthal Summer 2019
The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in the United Nations Headquarter in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: Martin Lehmann)

The pro-Israel community is rarely shy about lambasting the profoundly invidious UN Human Rights Council, which year after year singles out the Jewish state among all the countries of the world for unparalleled criticism.

While written condemnations of the Council’s bias, and quotes to the media, are par for the course (and highly important), a demonstration in Geneva in March against the UNHRC infused efforts to debunk the anti-Israel narrative with renewed energy. The organization UN Watch, which seeks to reform the UN’s reactionary policies and structures, termed the event a “historic protest rally.” UN Watch mobilized the demonstration.

Hundreds of protestors, including the outspoken American ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, challenged the UNHRC’s infamous Agenda Item 7 – defined as a review of the “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” – the measure used to punish Israel at every council session. It is the UN body’s only permanent element targeting a particular state. No country but Israel is permanently singled out for opprobrium at the UNHRC.

UNHRC and the War Against Israel

The UNHRC has devoted seven reports to Israel, accusing the Jewish state of various human rights violations and war crimes. The most sensitive report dealt with an UN inquiry that concluded in February 2019 that Israel may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during Hamas-sponsored protests/riots on the Gaza Strip-Israel border last year. The so-called UN Independent Commission of Inquiry ignored the role of the U.S.- and EU-designated terrorist organization Hamas in engineering the violence. In an effort to stop Hamas terrorists and supporters from entering Israeli territory, 189 (according to the UNHCR) Palestinians were killed, and 9,204 (again, according to the UNHCR) people were injured.

Israel’s government noted that most of those killed and injured in the riots and the attempts to breach the border were young men of fighting age, and said that the number of those injured was in the range of 4,000. Predictably, the UN report failed to address Hamas’s use of grenades thrown at Israeli soldiers. Hamas also engages in ecological terrorism by dispatching kites and balloons across the border to carry out arson attacks and to detonate bombs. The goal is not only environmental destruction but also to murder Israeli civilians.

The UNHRC and the inquiry investigators are wholly ill-equipped to address Hamas’s asymmetrical warfare. As Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie, my colleagues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) wrote in an August 2018 Wall Street Journal commentary:

The most prominent recent example [of asymmetric warfare, ed.] is the Hamas-organized “March of Return,” a multiweek campaign during which thousands of Gaza civilians−including women and children – repeatedly rioted at the border with Israel. Groups of armed Gazans used these riots as cover to attempt to breach the border.

Dubowitz and Kittrie noted:

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, admitted that the march was designed to generate civilian casualties – to sacrifice “that which is most dear to us − the bodies of our women and children.” The plan worked, he claimed, as “our people” forced onto “the world’s television screens . . . the sacrifice of their children.” Hamas official Salah Bardawil later admitted that most of those killed by Israeli troops defending the border were Hamas operatives. But the television images had already done the intended damage to Israel’s reputation.

At the anti-UNHRC Protest

All of this helps to explain why hundreds of people across Europe, including President Donald Trump’s most prominent ambassador on the continent, Richard Grenell, participated in the demonstration in front of UNHRC headquarters in Geneva.

“The belief that a single country and a single people merit such attention on a permanent basis. This belief is motivated by one thing: anti-Semitism,” Grenell said at the protest in Switzerland. Agenda Item 7, “speaks to the fundamental flaws of the Human Rights Council that it singles out Israel on a permanent basis.”

While Israeli and Jewish media outlets in the Diaspora covered the rally against the anti-Israel discrimination at the UNHRC, the American media did not devote much coverage to the event. For example, a New York Times dispatch datelined Geneva noted in one paragraph in its article about the UNHRC session that a protest took place, writing: “The Human Rights Council’s activity on Israel prompted pro-Israeli demonstrations on Monday outside the United Nations in Geneva. Senior American diplomats joined Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and pro-Israeli groups from around Europe in denouncing what it called the council’s anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitism.”

To its credit, Voice of America devoted coverage to Grenell’s remarks.

Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, spoke at the anti-UNHRC protest. He commented on the recent UN report:

I have first-hand knowledge of what Hamas and the IDF have done and I gave evidence to the commission of inquiry. I told them from my professional experience the reality on the border, and they did not listen to one word of what I said. This report is a tissue of lies, abuse, prejudice and distortion and is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Nikki Haley, then–U.S. ambassador to the UN, jolted many UN members into rethinking their anti-Israel bias. In June 2018, Haley famously rebuked the UNHRC while announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the body:

Regrettably it is now clear that our call for reform was not heeded… Human rights abusers continue to serve on, and be elected to, the council.

The world’s most inhumane regimes continue to escape scrutiny and the council continues politicizing and scapegoating of countries with positive human rights records in an attempt to distract from the abusers in their ranks. For too long the human rights council has been a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, recognized improvement in British policy. “We congratulate the UK on its new and principled stance on announcing that it will fulfill its promise to vote against all resolutions tabled under the UN Human Rights Council’s discriminatory Item 7,” said van der Zyl. The United Kingdom, however, rankled Israel advocates by abstaining in March on UNHCR Resolution L25 − which was considered under a different Agenda Item − accusing Israel of “possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Germany’s Anti-Israel Policies

Germany, while not involved in the March vote because it is not currently a UNHCR member, waged a diplomatic war against Israel at the UN in 2018.

Diplomats working for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said in Israel in 2008 that its security is “nonnegotiable” for her administration, voted 16 times to condemn the Jewish state in 2018, alongside authoritarian regimes including the Islamic Republic of Iran. Out of 21 anti-Israel resolutions that year, Germany’s ambassador to the UN in New York Christoph Heusgen and the country’s UN diplomats voted 16 times against Israel, and abstained on four.

A number of Israeli diplomats see Heusgen as stoking anti-Israel bias. Heusgen in March compared Israel’s security measures against Palestinian terrorism with Hamas rocket attacks. Put simply, for Berlin’s top UN diplomat, a recognized terrorist organization is the moral equivalent of the only democracy in the Middle East. This sort of demonization of Israel is allowed by Merkel and her Social Democratic foreign minister Heiko Maas.

Maas, who said last year he went into politics “because of Auschwitz,” has advocated a largely pro-Iranian regime policy. His deputy Niels Annen celebrated Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution at Tehran’s embassy in February. Annen also rejected a full ban of the terrorist entity Hezbollah in Germany. After the United Kingdom outlawed all of Hezbollah in February, Annen said Germany would not ban Hezbollah from its soil.

In addition to the UK, the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, the Arab League and Israel all classify all of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. The EU and Germany divide Hezbollah into so-called political and military wings. Merkel rejected an appeal from the Central Council of Jews in Germany to proscribe Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, amid rising Jew-hatred in the Federal Republic.

Changes on the Horizion?

In March, the Free Democratic Party, an opposition party in the Bundestag, introduced a pro-Israel resolution calling on the federal government to act “in the bodies and specialized agencies of the United Nations (such as the UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council or UNESCO) to dissociate [Germany] from unilateral, primarily politically motivated initiatives and alliances of anti-Israeli Member States, and protect Israel and legitimate Israeli interests from unilateral condemnation.” Free Democratic Party legislators Bijan Djir-Sarai and Frank Müller-Rosentritt drafted the resolution. Merkel’s governing coalition of Christian Democrat, Christian Social Union and Social Democrat legislators rejected the effort to change her administration’s anti-Israel voting pattern.

A breakthrough of sorts took place in May. Health Minister Jens Spahn, a prominent member of Merkel’s cabinet, played a critical role, for the first time, in rolling-back Germany’s anti-Israel voting record at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. Spahn is an openly gay member of the Christian Democratic Union party who has criticized Merkel over immigration policy. The American embassy in Berlin tweeted, “Thank you, Jens Spahn, for your leadership in standing against anti-Israel bias at the UN.”

And that same month, while marking the 70th anniversary of Israel’s admission to the UN, Maas criticized the UN’s treatment of the Jewish state, stating, “Israel is still being denounced, treated in a biased manner and marginalized inappropriately in UN bodies to this day.”

It is too soon to know whether Maas will reverse Berlin’s anti-Israel track record at the UN. Germany’s foreign ministry is permeated with anti-Israelism and Merkel has made no serious effort to rope in the hostility toward Israel from Maas and the German diplomatic corps. A telling example was that German diplomats defended the anti-Semitic policy of Kuwait Airways to refuse passenger service to Israelis at Frankfurt’s airport.

Sustained pressure, along with critical media reports, on Germany’s anti-Israel voting record at the UN might lead to fundamental changes during Merkel’s tenure. With Merkel planning to step down as Chancellor in 2021, a left-wing German government could intensify Germany’s already anti-Israel voting behavior at the UN.


To return to the protest at the UNHRC in Geneva, it is worth noting that the list of high-profile speakers along with media attention helped to draw attention to contemporary anti-Semitism unfolding within an organization that, in theory and practice, should seek to combat modern anti-Semitism.  The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe can’t be divorced from UNHRC-sponsored anti-Semitism. One litmus test for major European powers, who have been complicit in turning Israel into a state punching bag at the UNHRC, will be to reverse their anti-Israel voting pattern. European countries could also consider replicating the American decision and pull the plug on their participation at the UNHRC because of its theater of the absurd character.    

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.