For the first time, an Israeli will chair the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Yuval Shany, the Hersch Lauterpacht chair of public international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, was elected to the post unanimously by the 18 members of the committee on which he had been serving since 2013.
The Human Rights Committee, not to be confused with the UN Human Rights Council (from which the United States withdrew last month over perceived anti-Israel bias), is a body of independent experts that monitors how member states implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty covering issues such as self-determination, freedom of movement and more. The adherence of each member state is examined once every five years, when states file a report detailing their progress on human rights issues. Other local bodies, such as human rights non-profits, are also invited to file reports to serve as evidence in the evaluation process.
Moment reached out to Shany to hear his opinion on the global political climate, the challenges facing human rights norms and the implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What do you think your perspective as an Israeli brings to the Committee?
An understanding of how to strive to apply human rights law under difficult and challenging conditions, especially involving the complex interplay between security concerns and human rights.
Israel will be under review by the Committee this year. With local NGOs filing reports against several government policies—including treatment of African migrants and the use of torture in Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic intelligence agency) investigations—what could be the Committee’s response?
We review carefully all civil society submissions presented to us and confront the state delegations before us with the allegations made against them, so that they can respond to them and alleviate (if possible) our concerns.
Are there important elements of international law that Israeli politicians have failed to recognize in their policy—both domestic and vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What could be done to ensure these policies stay in line with international law?
I think Israeli policies toward the Palestinian-Israeli relations do not give enough weight to the human rights implications of this long-standing situation, which is very anomalous—51 years in which Israel exercises control over the fate of millions of foreigners, and more than a decade old stand off around Gaza. I think what is mostly lacking is a sense of urgency towards resolving the situation in light of the parties’ interests and rights under international law.
What drives your commitment to the study of international law?
I believe that many important values and interests are common to people everywhere and that the international arena offers a setting in which they can be effectively advanced. To do so is intellectually and personally satisfying given the unique challenges of operating within the loose political and legal structures that exist at the international level and the need to push “uphill” in an inhospitable environment for implementation of the rule of law.
Does the current political climate affect the advancement of human rights and the work of the Committee? Has that environment changed since you first began serving on the Committee in 2013?
The current climate affects the work of the treaty bodies. There is less political support for the work of international humanitarian bodies, the funding allocated to human rights causes is under increased tension and there are new problems of compliance and implementation. The main change since 2013 is the backlash against “political correctness,” which allows some states to publicly take illiberal positions which directly challenge core tenets of the human rights movement.
What, in your opinion, is the role of the UNHRC going forward in maintaining a global legal environment that addresses current international issues?
Our main role is to create for governments a sense of accountability which will encourage them to comply with their international obligations. However, we also serve as an outlet for victims of violations to air their grievances and seek some justice at the international level, and as a professional “steering committee,” which helps develop international human rights law and adjust it to new challenges.
What is your opinion of the United States’ decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council?
Although the Council is a flawed institution, which, besides its important work in drawing attention to human rights issues, suffers from politicization and applies double standards, I am of the view that engagement and working to improve the institution from the inside is generally preferable.