May 24, 2012 / 10:30 PM / 7 years ago

U.N. rights chief to stay two more years; U.S., Syria aren't fans

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly on Thursday renewed the mandate of the world body’s human rights chief Navi Pillay, but she was given an abbreviated term as part of a compromise deal with the United States, which dislikes her criticism of Israel, envoys said.

Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, smiles after a meeting with the Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina (not pictured) at the Presidential House in Guatemala City, March 15, 2012. Pillay arrived in Guatemala on March 10 to discuss human rights issues with government officials and representatives of civil society. REUTERS/William Gularte

Syria also made clear it was not a fan of Pillay, a South African jurist whom the Syrian delegation described as “hostile” towards Damascus.

Despite Washington’s attempt to block a renewal of Pillay’s mandate, a deal was reached after South Africa and others persuaded U.S. officials to back a two-year term for Pillay, instead of the normal four years, U.N. diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“It was a compromise that was brokered,” a diplomat said. “Washington can live with her for two more years, but they really don’t like her positions on Israel and the Palestinian issues.”

In August 2009, Pillay, who is based in Geneva, accused Israel of violating the rules of war with its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

A month later, a U.N. Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on the December 2008-January 2009 Israeli war against Gaza, headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, declared that both Israel and Hamas militants controlling Gaza appeared to have committed war crimes, though it was tougher on Israel.

At the time, Israel and the United States were furious about the so-called Goldstone Report, which they dismissed as distorted and biased against Israel.


A leading Republican lawmaker in Washington has made no effort to hide her disdain for Pillay.

“The U.N. is poised for two more years of sham human rights protection,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said earlier this month. Ros-Lehtinen is an outspoken critic of the United Nations and the way issues related to Israel are handled at the world body.

“Pillay endorsed the Goldstone Report and still endorses that anti-Israel screed,” she said. “She also was the secretary-general and top defender of the U.N.’s anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-freedom Durban II conference.”

The United States, Israel, Canada and others boycotted the United Nations’ 2009 Durban II anti-racism conference.

A U.S. official praised Pillay’s record on Syria but made clear that the United States thought her office’s performance had not been perfect.

“High Commissioner Navi Pillay has been an outspoken human rights advocate, including most recently by drawing attention to rampant human rights violations being committed by the Syrian regime,” the official said.

“Over the next two years, we will continue to encourage (her) to speak out on human rights violations wherever they occur and to address ongoing shortcomings in (her office’s) work,” the official added.

Four years ago, when Pillay was first proposed as a replacement for former U.N. rights chief Louise Arbour, some in the previous U.S. administration raised doubts about Pillay because of her support for the idea of keeping abortion legal worldwide, a sensitive issue in the United States.

But the Republican George W. Bush administration eventually came around and supported Pillay four years ago, as the Democratic Barack Obama administration did on Thursday.

The assembly approved the extension of Pillay’s term by consensus without a vote. The Syrian delegation did not formally object to her reappointment but made clear it was unhappy with her criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s 14-month battle with an opposition that is determined to oust him.

“The high commissioner for human rights has taken hostile positions regarding Syria, basing (them) on totally fabricated information and suspect sources, all of this directed against Syria,” Syrian envoy Monia Alsaleh told the 193-nation assembly.

“Despite all of this Syria will adhere to consensus ... in the hope that she will review her anti-Syria position,” she said.

Editing by Eric Beech

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