'Apartheid': How one word reignited UN tensions over Israel

A UN report used the word 'apartheid' to describe Israeli policies in Palestinian territories, in a first for the organization. But amid uproar from the US and Israel, the report has since been pulled.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters
UN Under-Secretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf speaks during a news conference announcing her resignation from the United Nations in Beirut, Lebanon, March 17, 2017.

A report by a United Nations body accusing Israel of imposing an “apartheid regime” on Palestinians has ignited a fracas at the UN, prompting the withdrawal of the report – and the subsequent resignation of the senior official responsible for its release.

As the Trump administration promises vigorous support for Israeli policies, the uproar seems to foreshadow a drift toward increasing contentiousness at the UN over the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, which is recognized by some nations and international bodies (not including the UN) as "Palestine."

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said the report, issued by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) – a regional commission made up of 18 Arab-majority states – does not reflect his views, with spokesman Stephane Dujarric telling reporters earlier this week that it was published without consultation with the secretariat.

"This is not about content, this is about process," Mr. Dujarric said on Friday.

"The secretary-general cannot accept that an under-secretary general or any other senior UN official that reports to him would authorize the publication under the UN name, under the UN logo, without consulting the competent departments and even himself,” he added.

The report concluded that Israeli policies toward Palestinians met the definition of “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group” against others, as defined by international law.

The United States and Israel celebrated the report’s withdrawal, calling it “false and defamatory,” and attacking co-author Richard Falk, a former UN human rights investigator for the Palestinian territories, as biased against Israel.

Mr. Dujarric’s account of the report’s withdrawal was disputed by ESCWA’s under-secretary general and executive secretary, Rima Khalaf, who in her letter of resignation accused “powerful member states” of pressuring the UN chief with “vicious attacks and threats.”

"I do not find it surprising that such member states, who now have governments with little regard for international norms and values of human rights, will resort to intimidation when they find it hard to defend their unlawful policies and practices," Ms. Khalaf wrote.

"It is only normal for criminals to pressure and attack those who advocate the cause of their victims," she added.

Thomas Weiss, director emeritus of the City University of New York’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and a specialist on the UN, tells The Christian Science Monitor that a more critical view of Israeli policies, and advocacy for tougher opposition to them, had gained increasing traction.

One contributing factor, he adds, was the Obama administration’s abstention on a Security Council vote condemning Israel. 

“There’s a certain amount of momentum in play here. Israel and the United States, with the current administration, are going to be increasingly isolated,” he says.

US representatives have staked out a combative posture toward various UN bodies in the Trump administration’s first months.

In a speech at the UN Human Rights Council in early March, US envoy Erin Barclay called the Council’s long record of resolutions denouncing Israel as an “obsession” and “the largest threat to this council’s credibility," according to The Independent.

And in an interview with Fox News on Friday, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the organization “has been Israel-bashing for decades”.

"What we are trying to do is make sure they understand that there's a new administration in town and we're not going to put up with it," she added.

But the emergence of the report may also have to do with the reconfiguration of the UN bureaucracy.

Dr. Falk, who is also a Princeton University professor of international law, has “used this term for years to describe Israel’s policies toward the occupied territories”, notes Dr. Weiss, a close colleague of Falk.

“He never put it in a Human Rights Council document when he was the special rapporteur on the occupied territories because the documents that come out of the HRC are overseen by the secretariat and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who would’ve found it a step too far.”

ESCWA, the commission that produced the report, bypassed top UN authorities when posting it online.

“It’s not an overnight report. It has undoubtedly been in the works for some time, since long before the [US] election,” says Weiss.

This report contains material by Reuters.

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