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UN Human Rights Council: UK Voting Record on Israel

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK voting record at the UN Human Rights Council on Israel.


Order. There is a Division in the House, but we do not have to suspend the sitting unless Members wish to do so.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not on the list to speak, so it is in the grace of the Minister and the Member in charge. I am happy to suspend the sitting if other Members wish to do so, but I cannot suspend it only for the hon. Gentleman.

If the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) and the Minister want to go ahead, I am happy with that, but I have a small intervention that I would like to make. Do we have eight minutes for the Division?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, for the first Westminster Hall debate that I have had the privilege to lead. I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for a fact-finding visit I undertook to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2019.

The landmark peace agreements signed between Israel and her Arab neighbours in recent months are an extremely welcome development after years of stagnation, but it is an unavoidable reality that the unrelenting attacks on Israel at the United Nations make regional peace harder to achieve.

It is no secret that the UN and its associated bodies have a long history of singling out Israel far more than any other nation in the world. Past UN Secretaries-General have publicly raised concerns about the UN’s fixation with Israel, with Ban Ki-moon stating in 2016 that

“decades of political manoeuvring have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel.”

He rightly said that this bias does not help the Palestinian issue but instead foils

“the ability of the UN to fulfil its role effectively”.

His predecessor, Kofi Annan, said that while Israel faces “intense scrutiny”,

“other situations fail to elicit the world’s outrage and condemnations.”

The current UN Secretary-General has said that Israel

“needs to be treated as any other state”.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate to Westminster Hall. I fully support what he is saying. Does he agree that the targeted, sustained and passionate bias against Israel displayed at the UN is a stain on every bit of good that the UN seeks to do? Our Government and our Minister need to take firmer steps to highlight that the Israel-Palestine issue will never be resolved by continuing to peddle the false narrative perpetuated by the UN, by painting an awful picture of the victimisation of innocent Palestinians at the hands of so-called evil Israel. Will he join me in saying that this is simply false and needs to end now, if there is to be a lasting peace in the middle east that we can all subscribe to?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is a proud supporter of Israel, as are all his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party. I have a great deal of sympathy with his remarks.

I believe that the UK has a historic responsibility to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to stand up for our friend, Israel, when it is singled out for such unfair criticism in international forums. The Foreign Secretary recently said that we have

“stood up for Israel when it has faced bias, and frankly, politicised attacks in the UN and other forums.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 111.]

Our voting pattern at the UN now needs to match these warm words.

The subject of today’s debate is the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently meeting for its 46th session. The Council was established in 2006 to promote and protect human rights around the world, a laudable and just cause, which I am sure all of us would completely endorse. It is deeply regrettable that the Council has failed so comprehensively in its noble mission, while gaining a reputation as yet another politically exploited UN body. Consider that in the 15 years since its inception, the Council has passed 171 condemnations, of which more than half have targeted Israel. It is simply unjustifiable that 90 condemnations have been passed against Israel, while a mere 10 have been adopted on the world’s worst human rights abuser, Iran.

Astonishingly, no condemnations have been adopted on China, Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela or other serial human rights abusers. Instead, many of those serial violators are Council members, which of course makes a mockery of the UN’s highest human rights body. As China crushes democracy in Hong Kong, and as Venezuela stands accused of crimes against humanity, both remain members of the Council. For proof of the Council’s inbuilt conscious bias, one need look no further than the existence of the permanent country-specific stand-alone agenda item at every session. I am sure it will come as no surprise which country is targeted.

Permanent agenda item 7 is reserved for criticism of Israel, showing how deeply embedded this anti-Israel obsession has become. Motions adopted under item 7 have accused Israel of serious breaches of international law, while ignoring Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism. It is of course legitimate to highlight the plight of the Palestinian people, just as the national claims of other groups should also be given due attention. But when the blame is solely placed on Israel for the plight of the Palestinian people, with not even a superficial recognition of the numerous security challenges Israel faces, the failure of Palestinian leadership to prepare its people for a future peace agreement, and the countless peace deals rejected by the Palestinian leadership, it is clear that something has gone seriously wrong.

There is no mention of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which terrorise Israeli civilians with rocket fire. Those terror groups use Palestinian civilians as human shields, investing in weaponry rather than welfare. Just last month a Hamas-run court ruled that women required the explicit permission of a male guardian to travel. Where was the international condemnation?

The violations of Palestinian rights in Lebanon are also conveniently forgotten by the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies, despite hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being denied the most basic freedoms, including the right to work. At each and every session of the Council, the likes of the Palestinian Authority, Syria and North Korea accuse Israel of human rights abuses, while escaping scrutiny of their own violations. Frankly, it is a student politics style stunt that is entirely unbecoming of a supposedly distinguished international forum.

It is worth reflecting that such disproportionate singling out of Israel is one of the clearest examples of contemporary antisemitism, according to the world-leading definition. Such blatant bias will not change unless it is tackled head-on and rooted out. The UK’s decision in 2017 to put the Council on notice, stating that

“If things do not change, in future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct...”

was a hugely welcome first step.

Our Prime Minister was right, during his time as Foreign Secretary several years ago, to describe the Council’s “disproportionate” focus on Israel as

“damaging to the cause of peace”.

In 2019, the UK said that item 7 amounted to “systemic institutional bias” and voted against all item 7 resolutions. That was another welcome step, but when an anti-Israel resolution previously adopted under item 7 was proposed under item 2 in the same session, the UK abstained rather than voting against it.

My hon. Friend is making an important and timely contribution. He is rightly highlighting the systematic bias that brings the United Nations into disrepute and does nothing to aid the cause of peace and security in the middle east. Does he agree that the key issue right now—he alluded to it a few moments ago—is that the kind of biased text that has traditionally appeared under item 7, and which we as a Government have rightly committed to voting against every time, is now quietly making its way into another agenda item, sometimes with cosmetic changes, and when it appears there, we do not appear to be showing exactly the same level of commitment to voting against it? That is the issue we need to lean into this afternoon, and hopefully hear some positive remarks about from the Minister later on.

I welcome that intervention from my right hon. Friend, and of course he is entirely right. If items that are moved under item 7 are then moved to item 2, but the text is substantially the same, the UK should of course oppose those, just as we would have opposed them under item 7.

The resolution in question referred to the findings of the international commission of inquiry on the 2018 Gaza border protests, which the UK refused to support as it failed to examine Hamas’s role in the violence. Despite stating that Hamas bore responsibility for the violence and recognising Israel’s right to self-defence, the UK did not oppose this one-sided resolution.

As a direct result of growing international opposition to item 7, proponents of these one-sided motions have been working to move them into other agenda items, as my right hon. Friend has just stated. In 2018, instead of challenging this procedural sleight of hand, we undermined our principled stance by abstaining. Surely, if the UK deems resolutions within item 7 to be biased, it is ultimately irrelevant where they end up on the agenda. Biased one-sided motions are biased one-sided motions, irrespective of the agenda item number attached to them. Can the Minister explain this step backwards from the previously stated pledge to vote against all anti-Israel resolutions? Will he confirm that at the current session of the Human Rights Council, with votes expected next week, the UK will call for a vote on item 7? He will know that if no country calls for a vote, the resolution passes uncontested by consensus. Given our principled and outspoken criticism of item 7, we cannot afford to rely on others.

Reports of some of the language that has been considered for inclusion in an item 2 resolution next week are deeply worrying, including language that we would have voted against had it appeared in item 7 resolutions previously. The Government have said that they will support scrutiny of Israel outside of item 7, so long as it is justified and proportionate. Does the Minister believe that a resolution that condemns violence, including acts of terror, provocation, incitement and destruction, but does not even mention Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is justified and proportionate? Does he agree that there should never be any implied equivalence between Israel’s defensive actions and indiscriminate attacks by terrorist groups?

The text also reportedly seeks to restrict arms sales to Israel, despite article 51 of the UN charter stating that countries have a right to defend themselves. I hope the Minister can reassure me that the UK will indeed vote against this harmful motion. The Foreign Secretary’s calls earlier this month for the abolition of item 7 should mean not only the end of a permanent agenda item singling out Israel for criticism; it should mean that all one-sided motions are also withdrawn, not simply moved elsewhere. Until then, we must honour our pledge to vote against all anti-Israel resolutions wherever they appear, just as we would have voted against those motions if they targeted our other allies.

Another UN body known for its bias against Israel is the UN General Assembly. While the likes of Iran, North Korea and Syria have only been condemned a handful of times, 112 resolutions condemning Israel have been adopted there since 2005. China has not been condemned once.

It is deeply worrying and regrettable that the UK voted for 12 out of 17 resolutions singling out Israel in December 2020, abstained on four and voted against only one. One of the resolutions we supported only used the term Haram al-Sharif to describe Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—Judaism’s holiest site—ignoring the Jewish connection to the site altogether.

The Abraham Accords present a momentous opportunity to reinvigorate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians in order to achieve the two-state solution that we all hope to see. We simply must not allow this process to be derailed by allowing attacks on Israel at the UN to go completely unchallenged. At the Human Rights Council next week, we should vote with our feet and send a clear message that Israel must be treated fairly. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that he can confirm that the UK will be calling for a vote on item 7, and voting against all anti-Israel resolutions, including any proposed outside the scope of item 7. It is time that our words were matched with actions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not just for the words that he has spoken in this debate, but for the hard work that I know he does outside this Chamber to fight against antisemitism. I have listened to, and am grateful for, the contributions and interventions made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), and I will try to cover as many points as possible.

First, let me state on the record that the UK is a proud friend of Israel. I think it is fair also to say on the record that prior to my ministerial appointment I was a member of Conservative Friends of Israel. My personal feelings aside, the UK Government’s position is that we are both happy and proud to stand up when we feel that Israel faces bias and unreasonable criticism from international institutions, or indeed from anywhere else. We agree with my hon. Friend that item 7 is an example of that bias. As he said, item 7 is unique; it is the only item on the council’s agenda that singles out an individual country for scrutiny. For many of the reasons that he mentions, we feel that this is wrong; furthermore, we believe it hinders the work of the human rights agenda that the UN seeks to pursue and actually disincentivises full co-operation in pursuit of that agenda. Rather than encouraging Israel to engage with the mechanisms and expertise that the Human Rights Council has to offer, we believe that item 7 alienates Israel.

This is an issue that has been brought up with me directly, and it is clearly one on which a number of Members of the House of Commons agree. We want Israel to engage fully with the human rights machinery. We feel that item 7 dissuades it from doing so. Item 7 damages the efforts to advance dialogue, increase stability, and build mutual trust and understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian people, and therefore damages the prospect of a sustainable, meaningful and peaceful two-state solution. That is why, at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2019, the UK adopted a principled approach in which we voted against all resolutions tabled under item 7.

Our vote sent a clear signal that the UK stands against the implicit supposition that Israel’s conduct deserves a unique focus and greater scrutiny than that of any other country in the world. The UK will continue to push for the abolition of agenda item 7. Let me make it clear that we will continue to support the scrutiny of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the Human Rights Council, as long as that scrutiny is justified, fair and proportionate and is not proposed under agenda item 7, which is why, by definition, agenda item 7 should be abolished.

My hon. Friend spoke about issues moved from agenda item 7 to other agenda items. I touch on that because it is an important distinction. It goes to the point that the UK is happy to support the scrutiny of countries, including Israel, if it is done fairly and proportionately. That is why that when the Palestinian Authority made the decision in 2019 to move resolution items from item 7 to item 2—bearing in mind that item 2 looks at a range of actions of a range of states—the UK engaged with that resolution in good faith and closely with our international partners. We ultimately chose to abstain, in keeping with the position we took in 2018 when we abstained on a resolution to create a commission of inquiry into Gaza protests. In that instance, we could not and did not support an investigation into violence that refused to call explicitly for an investigation into the action of non-state actors such as Hamas—a point that my hon. Friend made. Our expectation is that accountability must be pursued impartially, fairly and in an even-handed manner.

This Government have also chosen not to support resolutions at the Human Rights Council that include provisions that go beyond our broad policies. In 2016 and 2017, alongside other European states, we abstained on a Human Rights Council resolution that called for the creation of databases of companies involved in settlement activities in the Palestinian territories. As we said in our explanation of votes at the time, we did not believe that establishing such a database was a helpful measure or consider it appropriate for the UN Human Rights Council to take on this role. The UK has not co-operated with the process of compiling this database, nor have we encouraged UK companies to do so.

As my hon. Friend says, the 46th session of the Human Rights Council is ongoing. The Government will continue to vote against all resolutions under item 7. The Palestinian delegation has listened to our concerns and has moved some resolutions from item 7 to item 2, meaning there will now be two Palestinian-tabled resolutions under item 7, rather than the four that were under item 7 back in 2018. The Palestinians have also merged or consolidated the two items, reducing the overall number of resolutions focused on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Negotiations on the resolutions are ongoing. As I said, we have committed to enter in good faith into negotiations on the text of such resolutions. Our blanket opposition is to resolutions under item 7, rather than more broadly to resolutions on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We will therefore decide how we vote based purely on the merits of the resolution and on the final text that is put before the council.

I am sorry to cut in just as the Minister is making a very important point, but I want to get some clarity. I understand the argument that he is making about engaging with the text that has moved from a permanent item 7 agenda into item 2, but if we voted against text that singles out Israel for criticism without mentioning Hamas or Islamic Jihad when it appears in item 7, surely it is morally right and logically consistent to vote against it when it appears under item 2 or anywhere else. Will he commit to vote against text exactly like that when it appears under item 2?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, which it is worth exploring. The UK Government have a principled opposition to agenda item 7 and have therefore voted against it because of its nature. We recognise that moving away from agenda item 7 is a positive step, so our commitment is to engage with the specific text. It may well be the case that the UK Government find the final text unacceptable, but the decision will be based on the specific text rather than our principled opposition to item 7 as a tool of specific and unfair criticism of Israel. Those negotiations are ongoing, so I am not in a position to provide my right hon. Friend with the reassurances he seeks.

It should be recognised that the close and strong bilateral relationship between the UK Government and Israel gives us the opportunity to speak out when we feel that Israel’s actions warrant it, as we have done on our concerns about annexation and the demolition of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, it is also the Government’s position that we will continue to support and advocate balanced resolutions in UN bodies. We are committed to making progress toward a two-state solution.

Resolutions that politicise UN bodies or that risk hardening the position of either side do little to advance peace or mutual understanding. We believe that negotiations will succeed only when they are conducted between Israelis and Palestinians and supported by the international community, and we will continue to work with international bodies, regional bodies, European partners and the United States, and of course with Israel and the Palestinian leadership, to advance dialogue, to encourage joint working and to find a permanent peaceful solution to this conflict, which has gone on for too long.

Sitting suspended.