GENEVA -- Israel became the first country to withhold cooperation from a United Nations review of its human rights practices on Tuesday, shunning efforts by the United States and others to encourage it to participate. Representatives from Israel did not appear at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday when it was due to present a report as part of what is known as the Universal Periodic Review process, in which all 193 member states had previously participated.
Israel's mission to the United Nations in Geneva informally notified the Human Rights Council earlier this month that it wanted to delay its participation but did not follow up with a formal request for postponement, creating uncertainty about its intentions. The uncertainty led to intense behind-the-scenes discussions to persuade Israel to reconsider its position.
"We have encouraged the Israelis to come to the council and to tell their story and to present their own narrative of their own human rights situation," the United States ambassador to the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said last week. "The United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review, and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed," she said.
The underlying concern expressed by many council members in Tuesday's session is that Israel's decision to stay away from the review has broken established practice of cooperation observed by all countries, opening the door to noncooperation by others. The greater concern, some members said, is that if Israel persists in this action it would jeopardize a collaborative peer review process widely valued for shedding light on the human rights practices of even the most closed and repressive governments.
"If the Israeli government is not careful, it will ruin an important global human rights process for everybody," Peter Splinter, a Geneva representative of Amnesty International, commented in a blog post.
The council decided by consensus on Tuesday that its president, Remigiusz Henczel of Poland, should try to persuade Israel to resume cooperation with the review mechanism and report on the result of his efforts in March, with an eye on rescheduling Israel's review at the latest in November. That careful wording leaves to a future discussion the action the council will take if Israel still declines to cooperate, diplomats said.
"Most people recognize that within the limits of reality Israel tried to make a small gesture," a senior European diplomat attending the council said, alluding to Israel's informal request for a deferral of its review. "The council's decision recognizes it would be foolish to slap that away," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.
Israel's no-show reflects longstanding frustration with the council's perceived anti-Israel bias, diplomats say. More than half the resolutions passed by the council since it started work in 2006 have focused on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians in Israeli -- occupied or Israeli-controlled areas. Israel also is the only country that is a standing item on the council's agenda.
Despite these tensions, Israel, until last year, had preferred to work with the council and in December 2008 participated in the Council's review of its human rights. Last May, however, Israel informed the council it had decided to disengage from what it called "a political tool and convenient platform, cynically used to advance certain political aims, to bash and demonize Israel."
Diplomats identify Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister of Israel's departing government, as the main architect of that decision and although they believe he had support from officials within the Foreign Ministry, they hope the formation of a new government now under way in Israel presents an opportunity for it to re-engage with the review process.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.