Why did Ireland abstain on UN Gaza inquiry vote?

Opinion: The UN Human Rights Council needs principled members to survive, and that sometimes means making unpopular decisions on the basis of opaque criteria

‘The humanitarian situation in Gaza is disastrous and Israel’s violations of international law are horrific, but there are questions of equivalence to be asked, at the very least at the time of the vote.’ Above, an Israeli soldier carries a tank shell onto a Merkava tank inside southern Israel, close to the Gaza Strip, yesterday. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA

‘The humanitarian situation in Gaza is disastrous and Israel’s violations of international law are horrific, but there are questions of equivalence to be asked, at the very least at the time of the vote.’ Above, an Israeli soldier carries a tank shell onto a Merkava tank inside southern Israel, close to the Gaza Strip, yesterday. Photograph: Jim Hollander/EPA

Fri, Aug 1, 2014, 00:01

The Government’s decision to abstain on a vote establishing a commission of inquiry into “Operation Protective Edge” at the UN Human Rights Council has drawn criticism from virtually all quarters. Much of that criticism has, however, been characterised less by informed argument than it has been by partisanship and black-and-white worldviews.

Ireland was elected to the council in late 2012. Since then, little attention has been paid to our membership, with this mini-saga the first real domestic flashpoint. The workings of the council are understood by a small cadre of diplomats and academics. This has understandably led to a simplified debate on Ireland’s abstention.

What were the reasons given for Ireland’s decision? Do they stand up to scrutiny?

On the basis of materials made available by Ireland and the EU, the Government’s reservations appear to have been two-fold: first, whether the draft resolution reflected the situation on the ground; second, whether a commission of inquiry was the appropriate investigative mechanism.

The former concern appears to refer to the fact that the resolution does not specifically condemn rocket attacks from Gaza. These attacks, due to their inability to distinguish between civilian and military targets, qualify as war crimes, notwithstanding their limited impact. This is a notable omission; the latter concern is more technical.

The council has, in its brief history, established numerous investigative bodies. Commissions of inquiry have to date been the most extreme option. Two inquiries have reported to date: on Syria and on North Korea. A similar commission has recently been established for Eritrea.

Ireland’s abstention appears to have been mainly prompted by concern as to whether an inquiry was the appropriate response. The UN, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), has an extensive field presence in Israel and Palestine. OHCHR could conceivably report in a matter of weeks. The commission on Syria, by contrast, took three months; the commission on North Korea took a year.

Why was a commission of inquiry preferred to providing OHCHR with a council mandate? The answer is probably the states that presented the resolution wanted to draw parallels between Israel and the other states that have been subject to such commissions: Syria, North Korea and Eritrea.

Grotesque abuses

Syria is the greatest catastrophe the world faces today. North Korea and, to a lesser extent, Eritrea, are testament to the ability of states to perpetrate grotesque abuses on their own people. These are the outer extremes of man’s inhumanity to man.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is disastrous and Israel’s violations of international law are horrific, but there are questions of equivalence to be asked, at the very least at the time of the vote. This concern is acute when we consider a council that has been obsessed by Israel since its inception, to the extent that its agenda features a standing item on “the situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”. No such item exists for North Korea or Eritrea, for China or the US, for Northern Cyprus or Western Sahara.

While this might seem a marginal concern, the use of the UN human rights machinery as a means of political attack was what finally discredited the council’s predecessor, the commission on human rights. The council needs principled members to survive, and that sometimes means making unpopular decisions on the basis of opaque criteria such as the difference between a fact-finding mission and a commission of inquiry.

Concerns not trivial

None of the concerns are trivial and they should not be dismissed out of hand as they have been. But nor need they have been decisive. Contrary to what one might have surmised from social media this past week, Ireland has long been stridently “pro-Palestinian”. We were the first EU member state to declare that a solution to the conflict in the Middle East must be based on a fully sovereign state of Palestine, independent of and co-existing with Israel. This history of support is understood in Ramallah, even if it may not be in Dublin. Last week’s abstention is an aberration.

Charlie Flanagan is uncommon among Irish politicians and unique among modern Irish foreign ministers in his record of vocal support for Israel. The question, then, is whether the decision to abstain on this vote was one made on the basis of essentially procedural concerns or whether we are witnessing a more fundamental and troubling change in policy.

Maurice Cotter is a former human rights officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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