US State Department: UN human rights reform must address focus on Israel

Joe Biden’s administration objects to findings over alleged Israeli war crimes

FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2014 photo, a Palestinian woman passes by rescuers inspecting the rubble of destroyed houses following Israeli strikes in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip.  On Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, Palestinians have welcomed the International Criminal Court’s ruling extending its jurisdiction to the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.  (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)
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Reforms that would address the UN Human Rights Council’s “disproportionate focus” on Israel are among changes the United States wants to see, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.

Washington also objected to a decision by the International Criminal Court on Friday that found the court has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories, a State Department spokesman said.

The US said earlier on Monday it would return as an observer to the UN Human Rights Council, which it quit under the Trump administration, while seeking reforms of what it called the “flawed body”.

The new US position comes at a critical juncture for Israel, the Palestinians and the ICC.

In December 2019, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she believed there was a “reasonable basis” to open a war crimes probe into Israeli military actions and settlement activity. But first, she asked the court to determine whether she had territorial jurisdiction.

In a 2-1 ruling last week, judges granted her that jurisdiction in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians claim all three areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, for a future state.

The ruling did not open a war crimes probe. That will be Ms Bensouda’s decision. In a brief statement, she said she would closely study the ruling before deciding how to proceed. That process could take months to play out.

In the meantime, Israel has launched personal attacks against Ms Bensouda and accused the court of holding it to unfair standards. It also says the Palestinians don’t have a state and accuses the court of wading into political issues.

Settlements face further scrutiny 

The ICC decision and the US stance of wanting a stronger focus on Israel’s human rights record will place renewed focus on Israeli settlement construction.

About 700,000 Israelis now live in housing built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Settlements are widely viewed as illegal based on the Geneva Convention principle that an occupying power is barred from transferring its population to territories captured in war. Population transfers are listed as a war crime in the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute.

“The settlement issue is really the biggest issue. This is the elephant in the room,” said Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 war and considers the area an inseparable part of its capital. It says the West Bank is “disputed,” not occupied, and its fate should be decided through negotiations.

Yet the Israeli positions have little support internationally, particularly since the departure of the settlement-friendly Trump administration last month.

Mr Shany said the court ruling means Israeli settlement policy could come under hard-to-defend scrutiny. “This exposes basically the entire Israeli political elite that has been part of a settlement policy to criminal proceedings before the court,” he said. “This is a significant setback.”


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