A pro-Israel rights group filed a complaint on February 14 against the head of a UN investigation into systematic abuses in Israel and the Palestinian territories for prejudice, demanding she resign.
Navi Pillay, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was appointed last July to head a high-level probe into “all underlying root causes” in the drawn-out conflict.
UN Watch, a Geneva-based rights group that monitors UN activities, said the South African jurist had displayed “demonstrable bias against Israel, including on issues specifically related to the case and controversy that is the object of this inquiry”.
“Many of the utterances in question occurred mere weeks before she was appointed by the UN ... leaving little room to imagine how Pillay could envisage the issues any differently so soon afterwards,” UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer said in a statement.
The group, which routinely attacks UN mandate-holders for anti-Israel bias, called for Pillay to recuse herself from the so-called Commission of Inquiry (COI) – the highest level of UN rights investigations.
If she refused, it called for the president of the UN Human Rights Council, which ordered the creation of the COI last year, “to take action to remove Pillay from the COI”.
Following an enquiry about the complaint, Ambassador Federico Villegas of Argentina, who is currently serving as council president, stressed the care that goes into selecting members of investigative bodies.
“The President of the Human Rights Council places the utmost importance on examining the independence and impartiality of each member in order to ensure the objectivity of the body,” he said in an email statement sent to AFP.
Villegas’s predecessor Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji appointed Pillay to head the commission, which was created during a special council session held last May to discuss the 11-day Hamas-Israel war that month, which killed 260 Palestinians and 13 people on the Israeli side.
The commission was tasked with looking beyond that surge in violence and to investigate all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, including east Jerusalem.
While the council had previously ordered eight investigations into rights violations in the Palestinian territories, this was the first open-ended probe, and the first to examine “root causes” in the drawn-out conflict.
It was also the first tasked with looking at systematic abuses committed within Israel.
Villegas said that when selecting members of investigative bodies, council presidents also place “special emphasis on the qualifications, skills, expertise and experience of the candidates”.
Pillay served as UN rights chief from 2008 to 2014 and also served as a judge with the International Criminal Court and as Judge President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Prior to that, Pillay, who is of Indian Tamil origin, became in 1967 the first non-white woman to open her own law practices in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where she represented people protesting apartheid.