17 March 2021
James Cleverly responds to debate on the UN Human Rights Council and the UK voting record on Israel

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the UK’s voting record at the UN Human Rights Council on Israel.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not just for the words that he has spoken in this debate, but for the hard work that I know he does outside this Chamber to fight against antisemitism. I have listened to, and am grateful for, the contributions and interventions made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), and I will try to cover as many points as possible.

First, let me state on the record that the UK is a proud friend of Israel. I think it is fair also to say on the record that prior to my ministerial appointment I was a member of Conservative Friends of Israel. My personal feelings aside, the UK Government’s position is that we are both happy and proud to stand up when we feel that Israel faces bias and unreasonable criticism from international institutions, or indeed from anywhere else. We agree with my hon. Friend that item 7 is an example of that bias. As he said, item 7 is unique; it is the only item on the council’s agenda that singles out an individual country for scrutiny. For many of the reasons that he mentions, we feel that this is wrong; furthermore, we believe it hinders the work of the human rights agenda that the UN seeks to pursue and actually disincentivises full co-operation in pursuit of that agenda. Rather than encouraging Israel to engage with the mechanisms and expertise that the Human Rights Council has to offer, we believe that item 7 alienates Israel.

This is an issue that has been brought up with me directly, and it is clearly one on which a number of Members of the House of Commons agree. We want Israel to engage fully with the human rights machinery. We feel that item 7 dissuades it from doing so. Item 7 damages the efforts to advance dialogue, increase stability, and build mutual trust and understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian people, and therefore damages the prospect of a sustainable, meaningful and peaceful two-state solution. That is why, at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2019, the UK adopted a principled approach in which we voted against all resolutions tabled under item 7.

Our vote sent a clear signal that the UK stands against the implicit supposition that Israel’s conduct deserves a unique focus and greater scrutiny than that of any other country in the world. The UK will continue to push for the abolition of agenda item 7. Let me make it clear that we will continue to support the scrutiny of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the Human Rights Council, as long as that scrutiny is justified, fair and proportionate and is not proposed under agenda item 7, which is why, by definition, agenda item 7 should be abolished.

My hon. Friend spoke about issues moved from agenda item 7 to other agenda items. I touch on that because it is an important distinction. It goes to the point that the UK is happy to support the scrutiny of countries, including Israel, if it is done fairly and proportionately. That is why that when the Palestinian Authority made the decision in 2019 to move resolution items from item 7 to item 2—bearing in mind that item 2 looks at a range of actions of a range of states—the UK engaged with that resolution in good faith and closely with our international partners. We ultimately chose to abstain, in keeping with the position we took in 2018 when we abstained on a resolution to create a commission of inquiry into Gaza protests. In that instance, we could not and did not support an investigation into violence that refused to call explicitly for an investigation into the action of non-state actors such as Hamas—a point that my hon. Friend made. Our expectation is that accountability must be pursued impartially, fairly and in an even-handed manner.

This Government have also chosen not to support resolutions at the Human Rights Council that include provisions that go beyond our broad policies. In 2016 and 2017, alongside other European states, we abstained on a Human Rights Council resolution that called for the creation of databases of companies involved in settlement activities in the Palestinian territories. As we said in our explanation of votes at the time, we did not believe that establishing such a database was a helpful measure or consider it appropriate for the UN Human Rights Council to take on this role. The UK has not co-operated with the process of compiling this database, nor have we encouraged UK companies to do so.

As my hon. Friend says, the 46th session of the Human Rights Council is ongoing. The Government will continue to vote against all resolutions under item 7. The Palestinian delegation has listened to our concerns and has moved some resolutions from item 7 to item 2, meaning there will now be two Palestinian-tabled resolutions under item 7, rather than the four that were under item 7 back in 2018. The Palestinians have also merged or consolidated the two items, reducing the overall number of resolutions focused on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Negotiations on the resolutions are ongoing. As I said, we have committed to enter in good faith into negotiations on the text of such resolutions. Our blanket opposition is to resolutions under item 7, rather than more broadly to resolutions on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We will therefore decide how we vote based purely on the merits of the resolution and on the final text that is put before the council.

Stephen Crabb 

I am sorry to cut in just as the Minister is making a very important point, but I want to get some clarity. I understand the argument that he is making about engaging with the text that has moved from a permanent item 7 agenda into item 2, but if we voted against text that singles out Israel for criticism without mentioning Hamas or Islamic Jihad when it appears in item 7, surely it is morally right and logically consistent to vote against it when it appears under item 2 or anywhere else. Will he commit to vote against text exactly like that when it appears under item 2?

Peter Dowd (in the Chair)

I remind the Minister that we have about three minutes left.

James Cleverly 

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, which it is worth exploring. The UK Government have a principled opposition to agenda item 7 and have therefore voted against it because of its nature. We recognise that moving away from agenda item 7 is a positive step, so our commitment is to engage with the specific text. It may well be the case that the UK Government find the final text unacceptable, but the decision will be based on the specific text rather than our principled opposition to item 7 as a tool of specific and unfair criticism of Israel. Those negotiations are ongoing, so I am not in a position to provide my right hon. Friend with the reassurances he seeks.

It should be recognised that the close and strong bilateral relationship between the UK Government and Israel gives us the opportunity to speak out when we feel that Israel’s actions warrant it, as we have done on our concerns about annexation and the demolition of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, it is also the Government’s position that we will continue to support and advocate balanced resolutions in UN bodies. We are committed to making progress toward a two-state solution.

Resolutions that politicise UN bodies or that risk hardening the position of either side do little to advance peace or mutual understanding. We believe that negotiations will succeed only when they are conducted between Israelis and Palestinians and supported by the international community, and we will continue to work with international bodies, regional bodies, European partners and the United States, and of course with Israel and the Palestinian leadership, to advance dialogue, to encourage joint working and to find a permanent peaceful solution to this conflict, which has gone on for too long.