Yuval Shany is the Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in International Law and former dean of the law faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This month he was selected to serve a one-year term as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, of which he has been a member since 2012; he is the first Israeli to have the post. The committee consists of 18 independent experts who monitor member states’ adherence to providing civil and political rights. The Jewish Week caught up with him recently by phone from Israel.
Q: What is the difference between the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council and the UN Human Rights Committee you now chair?
A: The council [which the United States recently withdrew from over perceived bias against Israel] is a diplomatic forum, and it adopts decisions that are generally about human rights. Sometimes it issues specific decisions. But since it is a political body, the decisions are influenced by the political biases of the member states.
We on the other hand are a body of experts that conduct a legal assessment of compliance with a specific treaty [the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and use a standard methodology. There are 171 countries that have signed the treaty. We do not treat any country differently from any other. There is no political agenda, and we apply the law as we see it.
How were you selected to sit on the panel?
We are selected by our states, but we do not serve as state representatives. We don’t have term limits, but the usual practice from the Western Group on which Israel is a member is to serve for two four-year terms. This is my second and perhaps last term. Israel had a member on the committee from 1996 to 2004. It is a very competitive position. There are only 18 positions for the whole world, and it would be exceptional if Israel again [had another delegate] after my term ended in 2020. The U.S. representative was not selected last time, nor was the Russian nor the UK. For Israel to have a member on the committee for a second time is quite an achievement.
Israel has been before the committee once since 2012. How was it treated?
There is the same process for all the states. There is a six-hour meeting with each state and questions are asked and then the committee compiles a report and makes recommendations to the state on areas to improve in civil and political rights.
Does the committee have a staff that examines each country’s adherence to the rights covenant?
We do have staff that helps us prepare the reports, and we rely on civil society groups — human rights groups and NGOs, and many countries have national human rights commissioners. We do our own research and get reports of other UN bodies, so there is a lot of information out there that we can ask the state to comment on. Then we make our report with our recommendations.
How would you assess the impact of the committee’s work?
It does raise issues and puts pressure on states to reconsider their practices. The record is mixed in that some countries have abolished capital punishment and changed the way they treat sexual minorities — these are areas where we are seeing significant improvement. But some countries continue to have very problematic human rights practices. In some situations, our intervention is useful and in others it is not. We have no enforcement processes. Sometimes the state or geopolitical forces will take our recommendations forward.
What do you do when you see gross violations in a member state, such as Venezuela?
We can be effective only when there is international support for our findings. It is important to pressure governments, but our ability to dramatically change countries when they are in a crisis is very limited. … It is for others to try to influence changes.