Israel-Hamas war

Key official leaves UN Human Rights Office with scathing criticism of ‘failure’ in Palestine

Lian Buan

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Key official leaves UN Human Rights Office with scathing criticism of ‘failure’ in Palestine

'FAILING.' Outgoing UN OHCHR New York Director Craig Mokhiber pens a scathing criticism on what he says was the United Nations' "failure" to bring peace and justice to Palestine. Photo of Mokhiber from UN RAF's Twitter

(1st UPDATE) 'We had failed in our duty to meet the imperatives of prevention of mass atrocities,' says outgoing UN Human Rights New York director Craig Mokhiber

MANILA, Philippines – Human Rights lawyer Craig Mokhiber leaves his post on Wednesday, November 1, as the New York director of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR), saying in a four-page strongly worded letter that the UN “is failing again” in bringing peace to Palestine and exacting accountability for the “murder and persecution against the Palestinians throughout the entire life of the UN.”

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary General António Guterres, said that Mokhiber is retiring on November 1 and the content of the letter, which has made the rounds in the human rights community, “are his views” and not of the UN OHCHR.

“I think it’s important to note that I know the letter is making the rounds that those are the personal views of the staff member who’s retiring [as of 1 November]. And those are his views. I mean, the views of the office are reflected in all the public statements coming out of that office,” Dujarric said during a press briefing on Tuesday, October 31.

Mokhiber told Democracy Now on Wednesday, November 1, however that he resigned. He said he had expressed his “frustration” as early as March but “the situation got much worse particularly in Gaza which is why I was compelled to write to the High Commissioner.”

“It became painfully clear that we had failed in our duty to meet the imperatives of prevention of mass atrocities, of protection of the vulnerable, and of accountability for perpetrators. And so it has been with successive waves of murder and persecution against the Palestinians throughout the entire life of the UN. High Commissioner, we are failing again,” Mokhiber wrote High Commissioner Volker Turk on October 28, saying “this will be my last official communication.”

“Mokhiber responded to a post on X (formerly Twitter) to academic Anne Bayefsky’s criticism of his letter as anti-semitic, saying “I will continue to stand with the millions of Jews, Muslims, Christians and others who are rejecting this kind of tired old nonsense and standing up for human rights for all,” he posted on October 31.”

Mokhiber, a career UN official who lived in Gaza in the 90s as an advisor, said in his letter that Israel’s retaliation in Gaza is “text-book case of genocide.”

‘Clarity of vision’

The debate around the issue is tense because it involves, for one, the Jews who were persecuted and massacred by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and emotions are high when criticizing Israel’s measures to sustain its Jewish state. Some would call it anti-semitic to be against Israel. Israel is under investigation by both the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice for allegations of systematic persecution of Palestinians in its occupied areas.

Mokhiber said the UN must lead in a “clarity of vision.” Mokhiber, noting that Jewish human rights defenders around the world have stood in solidarity with Palestine, said that “criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is not anti-semitic, any more than criticism of Saudi violations is Islamophobic, criticism of Myanmar violations is anti-Buddhist, or criticism of Indian violations is anti-Hindu.”

The UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, put Palestine under British Mandate after World War II. The Mandate System is a mechanism by which Allied powers are given the right to govern previously colonized lands (Palestine was under Ottoman empire before) until such time they can govern themselves. This paved the way for Britain to help in creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Mandate System has been heavily criticized for being colonial itself, despite its expressed intentions to decolonize. The UN, after it was established, came up with the partition plan to divide the land between Jewish and Arab states, marking the long years of resistance by the Palestinian people.

Mokhiber said “we would do well to abandon the old cliché that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born out of the atrocities that proceeded it, and to admit that it was born alongside one of the most atrocious genocides of the 20th Century, that of the destruction of Palestine.”

“The UN itself carries the original sin of helping to facilitate the dispossession of the Palestinian people by ratifying the European settler colonial project that seized Palestinian land and turned it over to the colonists. We have much for which to atone. But the path to atonement is clear,” said Mokhiber.

He laid out a 10-point action plan, one of which is to “support the establishment of a single, democratic, secular state in all of historic Palestine, with equal rights for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and, therefore, the dismantling of the deeply racist, settler-colonial project and an end to apartheid across the land.”

This recommendation is what Bayefsky called as anti-semitic, to which Mokhiber replied: “Calling for equal rights for Christians, Muslims, and Jews is now a form of antisemitism?”

Mokhiber said many people in the UN system, especially independent rapporteurs, “alongside most of our staff, have continued to stand up for the human rights of the Palestinian people, even as other parts of the UN (even at the highest levels) have shamefully bowed their heads to power.”

Israel and UN

Guterres has called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unimpeded humanitarian access to Gaza. The Philippines, which has officially stood by Israel through statements by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, abstained in the UN resolution that called for truce. The vote followed the abstention move of the United States, Israel’s key ally.

“In recent decades, key parts of the UN have surrendered to the power of the US, and to fear of the Israel Lobby, to abandon these principles, and to retreat from international law itself. We have lost a lot in this abandonment, not least our own global credibility,” said Mokhiber.

Guterres, aside from calling for a humanitarian ceasefire, had told the UN Security Council that “it is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”

In response, Israel, through its UN ambassador, called for Guterres to resign immediately.

The US is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with a special veto power. This setup, preserving permanent membership to superpowers US, United Kingdom, China, France and Russia, sustains criticism that UN still plays to colonial interests.

Mokhiber said his recommendations will “take years to achieve, and western powers will fight us every step of the way, so we must be steadfast.”

“The UN’s failure in Palestine thus far is not a reason for us to withdraw. Rather it should give us the courage to abandon the failed paradigm of the past, and fully embrace a more principled course…The world is watching. We will all be accountable for where we stood at this crucial moment in history. Let us stand on the side of justice,” Mokhiber ended his letter, his final UN letter after three decades of service there.

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.