A Step Too Far: The UN Human Rights Council COI Report on IsraelWednesday 12/07/2023

After clashes between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, the UN Human Rights Council opened a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate human rights abuses in Israel. Over the course of the past two years, the COI has produced three reports detailing one-sided, biased information about the events on the ground, falsely portraying reality for so many Israelis and Palestinians. In its latest report, the COI focused on “Israel’s attacks, restrictions, and harassment of civil society actors” and revealed numerous concerning human rights violations in the Palestinian Territories and East Jerusalem. However, the UN fell into its biased routine of disproportionate representation once again.

Although unequal treatment is expected with the UN’s long history of anti-Israel sentiment, the most recent proceedings took matters to new heights. Throughout the report and live session, the COI explicitly supported BDS and similar Israel-boycott organizations and categorized them as legitimate forms of protest. The COI also ignored terrorism enacted by both Palestinian leadership and civilians and called on UN member states to support the Palestinian resistance. These actions not only fail to uphold the COI’s mission to “establish the facts and circumstances” and “identify those responsible,” but it glorifies antisemitism in the world’s most prominent human rights organization, setting a precedent that poses a serious threat to Jews around the world (the UN Independent International COI on the OPT Mandate, 2021).

In the COI report’s section detailing Israel’s delegitimization of Palestinian civil society, the COI claims that Israel instituted various measures to limit BDS, such as removing their funding and cutting business deals. By preventing BDS from acting freely, Israeli authorities were denying their supporters the right to freedom of expression, which is considered a human rights violation. As a response, the COI asserts that:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice,” (Human Rights Council 53rd Session Report, pp 11)

Such statements blatantly support accounts of institutionalized antisemitism and violent resistance espoused by BDS leaders. There are numerous cases in which the BDS has voiced its antisemitic views. BDS co-founder and leader Omar Barghouti freely admits that BDS “opposes a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.” In another, a BDS leader in South Africa stated, “BDS […] will help bring about the defeat of Zionist Israel and victory for Palestine.” Lastly, Barghouti claimed that “B.D.S. treats resistance to what it sees as Israeli oppression, including by armed struggle, as a legitimate right. Asked if B.D.S. condemned the violence that targeted Israeli soldiers, he declined to comment” (Halbfinger et. al, Is B.D.S. Anti-Semitic? A Closer Look at the Boycott Israel Campaign).

BDS’ opposition to a Jewish state in Israel’s borders is not hidden. They openly deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in the land of Israel and advocate against a peaceful solution. While every individual should have the right to criticize any institution and exercise his or her freedom of expression, there is a difference between disagreement and encouraging human rights crimes. BDS clearly legitimizes terrorism and harm to innocent Israeli civilians as a means to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.

To add fuel to the fire, the COI commissioners have explicitly shared similar views in interviews and sessions. Navi Pillay, the chief commissioner, has spent a large portion of her career fighting Israel, from lobbying governments to boycott Israel to creating the “Sanction Apartheid Israel” petition. On numerous occasions, Pillay has affirmed her support for BDS, such as “I hope that the Palestinian struggle to end colonization gains this kind of momentum, especially in the civilian campaign of BDS, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” at a conference in South Africa (November 29, 2017). Furthermore, Miloon Kothari, one of three commissioners of the COI, stated outright in the session, “States want to […] correctly uphold the rights of the Ukrainians to resist, and we want to see the same standards applied to the case of Israel and Palestine.” In short, just as the Ukrainians use armed resistance and violence against Russia, so should the Palestinians. Violence is an encouraged response (3rd Meeting 53rd Session of Human Rights Council).

By confirming BDS as a legitimate protest organization, the UNHRC supports both human rights violations and violence as a means to an end. They support the continuation of conflict, not peace, and are actively making the world a more dangerous place for the Jewish people.

As a Jewish student studying human rights in university, I am deeply disappointed in the COI’s report and frightened by its precedent. Firstly, one of the most important lessons of higher education is to never rely on one narrative. Every conflict has multiple angles, but ignoring basic facts detracts from the truth. Highlighting the Israeli perspective is just as crucial to progress as highlighting the Palestinian one, and peace can only emerge through mutual recognition.

Secondly, this statement arrives at a dangerous time for the Jewish people, as antisemitism has slowly crept back into all sectors of our society. Many of my peers have been alienated for their assumed pro-Israel opinions after simply expressing their Jewish identities. Not only do individuals fear expressing their opinions on Israel, but the environment no longer allows them to be open about being Jewish. By giving the green light to BDS, the COI contributes to “removing […] civil-society actors from the public space to stop their activities, silencing their voices and punishing them, and often also deterring others,” the exact environment the UNHRC claims Israeli authorities wrongfully create for Palestinians (Human Rights Council 53rd Session Report pp 20).

As a path forward, the UNHRC COI must condemn BDS for crossing the line from free speech to antisemitism. By drawing this line, the UNHRC can simultaneously protect the freedom of expression, as well as the Jewish people. Second, the UNHRC must recognize the terrorism enacted by Palestinian civilians and leadership. If they assert that Israeli violence is a human rights crime, they must at least recognize that it exists on the other side, let alone criticize it.

The only path to upholding human rights is to escape emotional narrative, present challenging issues from either side and hold both sides accountable for their actions. It is crucial to call out Israel when they commit crimes, just as criticism is warranted for any democracy, but displaying biased, one-sided evidence only inhibits progress and perpetuates the harmful, decades-long conflict. Every innocent Palestinian and Israeli equally deserves fair treatment from their governments and international institutions, and hiding the truth prevents human rights for all.

By Molly Goldstein – JIJ Intern

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