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Rima vs the UN over Israel’s apartheid

Did the resignation of ESCWA’s chief over a UN report describing Israel as an apartheid state let the genie out of the bottle?

Amira Howeidy , Saturday 25 Mar 2017
Rima Khalaf
U.N. Under-Secretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon March 15, 2017 Reuters
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After a career of 17 years in the United Nations, Rima Khalaf, director of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), announced her resignation in order to save a UN report describing Israel as an apartheid state from being buried and silenced.

The report, “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” was published on ESCWA’s website late afternoon Wednesday 15 March. Its findings are unprecedented in the history of the UN.

It proclaimed that the Israeli regime was designed for the core purpose of apartheid, endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and concluded that the two-state solution, or any other arrangement, is no solution unless the Israeli apartheid regime is deconstructed.

The report’s lifespan on ESCWA’s website was short, lasting less than 48 hours before it was removed as news of Khalaf’s resignation broke from Beirut, where she is based.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterras “has instructed me to withdraw the report yesterday,” Khalaf said in a presser Thursday. “I asked him to reconsider but he insisted. Accordingly, I submitted my resignation from the UN.”

In her written resignation, Khalaf, a Jordanian politician, economist and former minister, said she was aware of the pressure, threats and fear mongering Guterras and the UN were subject to by “states with authority and influence” because of the report’s publication.

“It makes sense that a criminal would attack those who defend the cause of his victims,” she wrote, “but I find myself incapable of bowing to such pressures, and not because of my role as an employee of the United Nations, but simply as a sane human being.”

Khalaf said that over the course of two months, Guterras instructed her to withdraw two reports published by ESCWA because of political pressure. Given that the evidence provided in the latest report of Israel’s apartheid regime “is incontrovertible,” she felt it was her obligation “to shine a light on the truth and not to hide it or obscure the testimony and evidence it provides.”

“The painful truth is that an apartheid regime still exists in the 21st century, and this is unacceptable under any law and is morally unjustifiable,” Khalaf added. “I cannot withdraw, once again, a United Nations report.”

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid is a crime against humanity, second only to genocide.

The 60-page report was authored by Richard Falk, a former UN human rights investigator for the occupied Palestinian territories, and Virginia Tilley, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. It concluded that available evidence “establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law.”

It relied for its definition of apartheid on Article II of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. It stipulates that the term “the crime of apartheid” includes similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in South Africa and applies to “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

The report found that the strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people is the principal method by which Israel imposes an apartheid regime.

Since 1967, the Palestinians have lived in what the report refers to as four “domains”, in which the fragments of the Palestinian population are ostensibly treated differently but share in common the racial oppression that results from the apartheid regime.

Those domains are: Civil law, with special restrictions, governing Palestinians who live as citizens of Israel; permanent residency law governing Palestinians living in the city of Jerusalem; military law governing Palestinians, including those in refugee camps, living since 1967 under conditions of belligerent occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and policy to preclude the return of Palestinians, whether refugees or exiles, living outside territory under Israel’s control.

According to UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric, the UN secretary-general did not authorise the report’s publication under the UN name and logo. He said that it was published without his consultation or that of competent departments.

But a UN source who requested anonymity told Al-Ahram Weekly that the process inside the international organisation does not require the UNSG’s authorization for a report to be published.

“It might have been more sensitive of her to seek Guterras’s authorisation given the sensitivity of the topic, but not doing so is not a violation of the UN system,” the source explained.

The report was commissioned during the 29th meeting of ESCWA’s Ministerial Session on 13-15 December 2016. Documents on ESCWA’s website show that item nine of that meeting’s provisional agenda stated that ESCWA “is preparing a study aimed at examining whether the policies and practices of Israel affecting the Palestinian people amount to apartheid.”

In a column published by The New Arab paper, Beirut-based Palestinian writer Mueen Taher wrote that Khalaf was the constant target of both Israeli and US representatives in the UN, with the support of “Arab states who do not want a discussion on the negative impact of the counter revolution, authoritarianism, corruption and oppression”, and who filed complaints with former UN chief Ban Ki-Moon to fire her.

At one point, Khalaf submitted her resignation to Ban Ki-Moon after the former secretary-general came under a lot of pressure and threats to discontinue financial assistance to the UN, but her resignation was rejected, wrote Taher.

The new secretary-general assumed his post earlier this year only a few weeks before US President Donald Trump took office. The appointment of Guterras — a respected Portuguese socialist politician and former UN high commissioner for refugees — was welcome news in rights activist circles.

But the impact of the Trump administration’s sensitivities towards any criticism of Israel appears to have been stronger than Guterras. US threats to cut funding to the UN could dramatically affect the international institution’s work.

“The fact that a UN secretary-general has bowed to threats and intimidation from the Trump administration to protect Israel from accountability, yet again, is hardly news,” said Mahmoud Nawajaa, general coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee. “The real news is that this time around, Israel, with all its influence in Washington, cannot put the genie back into the bottle.”

The conclusion might be debatable. While Khalaf’s resignation drew massive attention to the report and its findings, which would not have happened had it been withdrawn or even published quietly, questions remain about the impact of a report that was commissioned by the UN, and then rejected by its top echelons.

Technically, any of ESCWA’s 18 member states can present the report’s findings to the UN’s general assembly and request a resolution that condemns Israel’s apartheid. UN sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the system also allows non-ESCWA members to take that step.

The incident has drawn attention to the power of politics inside the UN and how that compromises the international body’s raison d’etre.

Bahgat Korani, professor of international relations and political economy at the American University in Cairo, was commissioned by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to edit a book marking the 10th anniversary of the Arab Human Development Report. The publication’s launch was officially announced in May 2013 in Tunis, but was abruptly cancelled and the report withdrawn due to political pressure.

After some negotiating, a compromise was reached between Korani and the UN: the report could be published, but without the UN logo.

“I called this a friendly divorce,” Korani told Al-Ahram Weekly. It was published as a book titled Arab Human Development in the Twenty-first Century, with mention in its introduction that it was commissioned by the UN.

“I often tell my students to be less idealistic in their perceptions of the UN,” he said. “The UN is not an institution of conscience, but an institution of state interests.” 


*This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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