ISRAEL will find itself in front of a Libyan ‘judge’ when it appears in the dock at the United Nations this week over alleged human rights abuses.
The UN’s Human Rights Commission - chaired by a diplomat from the North African country that was behind the Lockerbie bombing - will hear Israeli officials defend their country’s record in what is sure to be a stormy encounter in Geneva.
It is also certain that Israel’s case will be swept aside in a welter of criticisms of the Jewish state, which will result in condemnatory resolutions, all of which will be approved by the UN body.
The proceedings’ main effect will be to provide an angry backdrop to the latest efforts to make progress on the Middle East ‘road map’, which has already got off to a shaky start.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is to meet Israeli leader Ariel Sharon (below) today and press him to release more Palestinian prisoners, a move that Palestinians believe will bolster the US-sponsored peace effort. Abbas and Sharon will make separate trips to Washington later this week to meet President George W Bush.
The UN Human Rights Commission sits at the Palais Wilson, former home of the League of Nations, a location the UN website describes as "The House of Human Rights".
But controversially, the chairwoman in charge of proceedings is a Libyan, Najat al-Hajjajia. The career diplomat, elected on a rota basis, promised she would be impartial. Yet one of her first actions at the beginning of the year was to use the platform to launch a political speech against the US over Iraq.
Then the Commission barred the non-governmental body, Reporters Without Borders, from attending its meetings as a punishment for criticising Libya’s record on human rights.
Reporters Without Borders said of al-Hajjajia: "Censorship, arbitrary detention, jailings, disappearances, torture; at last the UN has appointed someone who knows what she’s talking about."
Also on the commission is Cuba, which recently summarily executed three ferry hijackers and sentenced 75 political activists and journalists to prison terms of between six and 28 years for "anti-state" activities.
The US likened Cuba’s election to the commission to putting Al Capone "in charge of bank security".
"Cuba does not deserve a seat on the Human Rights Commission. Cuba deserves to be investigated by the Human Rights Commission," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Israel has long complained that the commission is prejudiced, citing the fact that one third of all the resolutions produced in the commission are against it. At the last session there were five such resolutions.
A 129-page Israeli report to the commission on its human rights record hardly mentions the Palestinians.
It states briefly the Human Rights Covenant that the Israeli government has signed along with all other parties to the UN treaty does not apply to its actions in the West Bank and Gaza since these areas are not subject to its sovereign territory and jurisdiction.
They are "part and parcel of the context of armed conflict as distinct from a relationship of human rights".
It also argues that as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement of 1995 "the overwhelming majority of powers and responsibilities in all civil spheres, including economic, social and cultural, as well as a variety of security issues" have been transferred to the Palestinian Council.
"Israel cannot be internationally responsible for ensuring the rights under the Covenant in these areas," Israel’s report says.
Instead the Israeli report devotes many pages to such matters as Israeli laws protecting the rights of trade unions, equality in the workplace, protection from sexual discrimination and even access to buildings for disabled people.
It deals with Israeli Arabs who are Israeli citizens, admitting that "progress in closing the gaps between Jews and Arabs has not been advancing quickly enough in recent years" and that the situation of Arab Israelis is a "cause for concern".
Israel maintains that a clear distinction should be drawn between the right of Jews to settle in Israel and the right of Palestinian refugees to come back, arguing that "any Palestinian claim to a right to return" is part of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel’s critics point out the argument that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for running the West Bank and Gaza fails to take into account the fact that repeated Israeli armed attacks have reduced the Palestinian Authority’s buildings to rubble, making it impossible for it to carry out its duties.
Most European governments are likely to join the Arab and African majority on the committee this week in criticising Israel over the construction of a 210-mile security fence, which Israel argues is necessary to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers.
In March John Dugard, a South African lawyer, who is the UN’s expert on human rights in the Palestinian territories, described the electronic fence as "illegal" since it will enclose about 7% of Palestinian land. "I have seen portions of that wall, and it makes the old Berlin Wall look very small," Dugard said.
Only the US, which returned to the UN Human Rights Commission earlier this year after a year’s absence, can be counted on to back Israel in virtually every vote.
But even the US has joined in some of the recent criticism. US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on a recent visit to Israel said that the construction of the wall was "problematic" because it would "create a fait accompli" and could be perceived as the precursor to an international border between the two territories.
In its latest annual report the US State Department said that Israel’s overall human rights record in the occupied territories remained poor and had worsened in several areas as it continued to commit "numerous, serious human rights abuses".
Under the UN’s founding charter, each member state is obliged to submit a report on the human rights situation within its territory every five years.