The Universal Periodic Review, Human Rights, and Israel: What’s at Stake

By Peter Splinter, Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva

By the end of 2011, all UN member states’ human rights records had been examined under the Universal Periodic Review process. © Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission

By the end of 2011, all UN member states’ human rights records had been examined under the Universal Periodic Review process. © Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission

If the Israeli government is not careful, it will ruin an important global human rights process for everybody.

The Universal Periodic Review, a process to examine states’ human rights records, has until now been truly universal: all United Nation member states were reviewed by the end of 2011 and the second cycle of reviews has already started.

But now the government of Israel is not engaging with the process. Every indication is that the Israel will not be present this afternoon when it is scheduled to be examined under the Universal Periodic Review. As the only recalcitrant state among 193, Israel’s deliberate absence would sabotage the principle of universality. Consequently the Universal Periodic Review stands to lose the compelling legitimacy it derives from being applied even-handedly to all states. Why should states that would prefer to escape scrutiny of their human rights record, or are severely resource constrained, submit to this process if Israel’s non-compliance demonstrates that it is no longer universal?


UN: Sri Lanka facing two humanitarian crises

A top U.N. official visiting Sri Lanka warned today that Sri Lanka is facing “what amounts to two quite distinct crises.”  The first is the one I’ve been writing about on this blog:  the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the small area of northeastern Sri Lanka still controlled by the opposition Tamil Tigers.  With fighting continuing between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers, those civilians are in grave danger of death or injury.  My concern for their safety only increased after a Sri Lankan army commander told reporters today, “Now, the tigers are fighting out of uniforms, and it’s hard to distinguish between tigers and civilians.  This forced us to slow down offensives for fear of causing harm to civilians.”  Won’t a slower offensive still cause civilian casualties, since it’s so hard to distinguish who’s a civilian and who isn’t?

 The second humanitarian crisis is the one faced by the civilians who’ve been able to flee the war zone.  The U.N. has reported that more than 100,000 have gotten out over the past week.  Such a large number in such a short time understandably strains resources.  But the Sri Lankan government hasn’t helped matters; as AI has reported, the government requires fleeing civilians to stay in camps which they’re restricted from leaving.  Some of the camps are severely overcrowded, with some people being forced to stay out in the open with no shelter.  Other are placed in tents designed for a family of five but which are holding an average of 18 people and with limited water supplies.  UNICEF said yesterday that many people arriving at the camps are exhausted, malnourished and often wounded or sick.  UN agencies are airlifting emergency supplies to the north of the country where the camps for the displaced civilians are located.

Civilians who’ve fled the war zone don’t just face the danger of overcrowded camps with inadequate supplies.  UNHCR said today that they’ve gotten reports of physical assaults on men and women fleeing the zone.  AI has reported that some men fleeing the conflict area have disappeared after being detained by the Sri Lankan security forces.  While the Sri Lankan government should protect fleeing civilians from any Tiger members who may be mixed in with them, the government needs to carry out a screening process that protects the rights of both the civilians as well as the suspected Tiger fighters.

Both crises need immediate solutions.  For the first, the government and the Tigers should let the trapped civilians leave the war zone now.  For the second, the government should respect the human rights of those fleeing, both during the screening process and in the camps in which they’re housed.

The Soldiers Speak; What about the UN inquiry?

Israeli soldiers are telling their stories about questionable military practices during the conflict in Gaza.  They are describing attacks on unarmed civilians, using phrases like “cold blooded murder” in an effort to expose human rights violations.   But:

“Neither the Israeli justice system, despite its acknowledged strengths, nor that of the Palestinian Authority has ever properly addressed violations of international law by Israeli forces or Palestinian fighters.”

The UN’s Board of Inquiry is currently investigating attacks on UN facilities, but what of the civilians on both sides of the conflict?

“What is needed is a comprehensive international investigation that looks at all alleged violations of international law – by Israel, by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups involved in the conflict.”

Amnesty International recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to:

“…press for effective steps to be taken by the UN Security Council to ensure that a comprehensive international investigation is established to inquire into alleged war crimes and other serious violations of international law committed by all parties to the recent conflict in Gaza and southern Israel.”

This would require an independent and impartial investigation into all alleged violations of international humanitarian law that can provide recommendations on the prosecution of those responsible by the relevant authorities.