‘People Around the World Are Depending On Us’: Top Israeli Academic Embraces New Role as UN Human Rights Committee Chair
With little fanfare, the diplomatic history of Israel marked an important milestone this week when Prof. Yuval Shany became the first Israeli to chair the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee.
But as ever with the UN, its internal complexity means that the precise nature of Shany’s new post needs a bit of explaining first.
To start with, the UN Human Rights Committee is a body distinct from the UN Human Rights Council that the United States withdrew from in June, citing the council’s bias against Israel as a central reason for the decision. The purpose of the committee — which has never attracted the volume of media coverage that the council has — is to monitor the implementation by UN member states of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR.) The ICCPR deals with fundamental human rights challenges like the death penalty, the use of torture and discrimination against women.
Secondly, Prof. Shany is not a member of Israel’s diplomatic corps, nor does he represent the State of Israel. The current holder of the the Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shany heads the Human Rights Committee in his capacity as an independent expert on human rights and humanitarian law. Alongside him on the committee are 17 similarly-qualified academics and experts from a range of countries, including the US, South Africa, Uganda, Tunisia, Italy and Mauritania.
Speaking to The Algemeiner on Thursday from Geneva — where he is chairing the committee’s 123rd session following his appointment on Monday — Shany pronounced himself ready to shoulder his new duties.
“The Human Rights Committee is a very important body that monitors implementation (of the ICCPR) in 171 countries,” Shany said. “It’s a huge challenge logistically and substantively, and it’s a great responsibility — there are a lot of people around the world who are depending on us.”
Shany explained that his goal was “to get the committee to work as effectively as possible, so that we can provide as much justice as we can.”
When it comes to the scope of the committee’s work, Shany emphasized that its attention is increasingly focused on “issues that were not even thought of when the covenant was drawn up in 1966.” As examples, he mentioned the human and civil rights of LGBT+ communities, the growing number of enforced disappearances — abductions with no trace of the victim — that are carried out by repressive regimes around the world, and the rise in online hate speech.
Asked about the broader impact of the committee’s efforts over the last five decades, Shany responded that “if you look over the arc of time, there is a sense of progress.”
“The most dramatic is the death penalty, which the large majority of countries have abolished,” he observed. “There is also greater acceptance of LGBT rights, greater awareness of the rights of accused persons, greater awareness of the rights of people with disabilities.”
Terrorism is a major area of concern too. “Especially in these times, with the rise and fall of ISIS, many western European countries are passing counter-terrorism laws and measures,” Shany said.
Such legislation necessarily impacts on areas within the ICCPR’s remit — like the privacy of individual communications, and the right to a prompt, fair trial. At the same time, the ICCPR commits its signatories to prohibit “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” — all staples of terrorist propaganda.
In balancing national security with core individual liberties, Shany said, the committee monitors the legislation of member states, trying to ensure “that the legal definitions used aren’t too open-ended.”
Lastly, Shany is not phased by the mere fact of being an Israeli within the human rights architecture of the UN.
“Israel has a valid concern that in some UN bodies, it has been subjected to double standards — I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” Shany reflected. “But the fact that I have been appointed to this position indicates that this is not the case across the UN. There are more professional areas within the UN that are trying to treat all countries fairly and equally.”