Row over UN report highlights Israeli sensitivities

Sunday 26/03/2017
Unyielding to pressure. Former head of UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) Rima Khalaf reacts during a news conference in Beirut, on March 15th. (Reuters)

London - The head of a UN agency that promotes develop­ment in Arab countries resigned after refusing to withdraw a controversial report concluding that Israel had established an “apartheid regime” that discriminated against Palestin­ians.

The report titled Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid, which was published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), drew swift criticism from Israeli officials.

Its authors concluded that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that systematically institutionalises racial oppression and domination of the Palestinian people as a whole”.

Rima Khalaf, a Jordanian who headed ESCWA, announced her res­ignation as UN undersecretary-gen­eral March 17th at a news confer­ence in Beirut, saying she could not accept being subjected to pressure from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to withdraw the report.

She described the report as “the first of its kind”, adding that it “con­cludes scientifically and according to international law that Israel has established an apartheid regime”.

“It was expected, naturally, that Israel and its allies would exercise immense pressure on the UN sec­retary-general to distance himself from the report and to ask for it to be withdrawn,” she said.

When Guterres instructed her the previous day to withdraw the report, Khalaf said: “I asked him to review his position but he insisted on it. Based on that, I submitted to him my resignation from the United Nations.”

“It’s only normal for the criminal to attack those defending the cause of his victims but I cannot accept being subjected to such pressures,” she said, quoting from her resigna­tion letter.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the report was published with­out prior consultation with the UN Secretariat and its views do not re­flect those of the secretary-general.

Asked whether Guterres suc­cumbed to pressure from the Trump administration, Dujarric said: “This is not about pressure. This is about the secretary-general having the au­thority to manage the organisation in a way that is done effectively and can deliver on its goals.”

“A secretary-general cannot ac­cept that an undersecretary-general or any other senior UN official that reports to him would authorise the publication under the UN name, under the UN logo, without consult­ing the competent departments and even himself,” Dujarric said. “It’s about senior officials dealing with a matter that implicates other parts of the system — that they consult and they coordinate.”

Khalaf’s resignation was wel­comed by Israel and the United States, Israel’s closest ally, but Pal­estinians praised Khalaf.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a state­ment: “When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign. UN agencies must do a better job of eliminating false and biased work and I applaud the secretary-general’s decision to distance his good office from it.”

Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon said the “attempt [of the re­port] to smear and falsely label the only true democracy in the Middle East by creating a false analogy is despicable and constitutes a blatant lie”.

He accused Khalaf of working “to harm Israel” and supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “Her removal from the UN is long overdue,” he said in a statement issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

The official Palestinian news agency Wafa said that Palestin­ian President Mahmoud Abbas in­formed Khalaf by phone that she would receive the Palestine Medal of the Highest Honour in recogni­tion of her “courage and support” for the Palestinian people.

Jordanian government spokes­man Mohammed Momani described Khalaf as a patriot who has had sen­ior positions in the kingdom.

“We in Jordan view international reports about what the Palestinian people are being subjected to, from daily restrictions to injustice, as something that is in their interest,” he said.

The controversy continued March 20th, when a UN rights expert is­sued a blistering criticism of Israel’s policies.

In a report, UN Special Rappor­teur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories Michael Lynk charged Israel with “the subjugation of (Pal­estinians’) humanity” and intensi­fying a crackdown on human rights campaigners.

Lynk made the claims in a report presented to the UN rights council during the Geneva-based body’s mandated session on Israel, known as Agenda Item Seven.

The US State Department blasted the council for having its Israel de­bate and vowed in a statement “to vote against every resolution put forth under this agenda item”.

The European Union condemned the continuing loss of life on all sides but voiced concern that Lynk’s mandate and the Israel debate were one-sided

As part of its obligations under the Israel agenda item, Guterres’s of­fice presented its latest findings to the council.

“Chronic violations of interna­tional human rights law and inter­national humanitarian law by all parties have persisted,” the secre­tary-general’s office said, condemn­ing Israel over settlement expan­sion among other offences.