U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized the United Nations Human Rights Council for what he calls its “obsession with Israel.”
In a Monday speech in Geneva before the U.N. intergovernmental body, Kerry said the group’s heavy focus of Israel’s human rights records “risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.”
“We will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the U.N. system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate, Israel,” Kerry said. He said no country should be free from scrutiny on human rights, but no country should be subjected to “unfair or unfounded bias.”
Kerry commented a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to make a controversial speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in Washington.
Netanyahu is expected to denounce a potential agreement between world powers and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program, saying the deal would give Iran too many concessions and leave it with the ability to make a nuclear weapon.
Invitation causes rift
In a break of U.S. protocol, Netanyahu was invited by U.S. Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress, instead of an invitation issued by the White House.
In spite of the tensions between the White House and Israel over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the U.S. is continuing its efforts to back Israel in the Human Rights Council.
A senior State Department official said a “constant preoccupation and concern” for the U.S. is the “undue and biased focus on Israel” in the Human Rights Council.
Israel is the only country that “has a standing agenda item at the Human Rights Council,” the official said. “Our position is always very much in defense of Israel, in protection of Israel’s interests at the Human Rights Council."
The official also said that the biggest U.S. concern in the current UNHRC session is its upcoming release of the Commission of Inquiry on Gaza. The report, which is due to be released before March 23, will focus on Israel’s 50-day war against Gaza militants in July and August of 2014.
About 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis died during the conflict. Most of the Palestinians killed were civilians, while nearly all of the Israelis were military personnel.
Earlier this month, the man appointed by the Human Rights Council to lead the inquiry into potential war crimes committed during the Israel-Gaza conflict resigned.
William Schabas submitted his resignation after Israel accused him of bias because he has performed consultant work for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu also called for the entire Human Rights Council probe into the conflict to be scrapped. He said the three-member commission that was charged with investigating whether Israel had committed war crimes during the conflict, was an “anti-Israel body.”
Kerry denounces North Korea
During his speech, Kerry also cited North Korea’s human rights record, saying tens of thousands of people in the country live as “virtual slaves” in 2015, with no freedom of expression. He also said the government “routinely” tortured and starved citizens.
Kerry also highlighted atrocities committed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier in the session, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif addressed the group. He said “Islamophobia” is “tolerated” in some countries as freedom of expression.
He also said some defenders of human rights were overly driven by political considerations.
Zarif noted that some of those Islamic State militants who have beheaded “innocent civilians” spoke “European languages with native accents.”
Speaking to reporters following his speech to the U.N. council, Kerry stressed that Israel’s security is at the forefront of all nuclear program negotiations. He said any agreement must close all pathways Iran would have toward acquiring fissile material.
“We will not accept a bad deal. We have said no deal is better than a bad deal, because a bad deal could actually make things less secure and more dangerous," he said. "Any deal that we would possibly agree to would make the international community, and especially Israel, safer than it is today. That is our standard.”
Kerry and Zarif are to hold a series of meetings in Switzerland to discuss the potential plan, which is being negotiated by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.
Zarif told reporters in Geneva that a deal could be concluded this week if the negotiating sides have sufficient political will and agree to remove sanctions on Tehran.
"If they want an agreement, sanctions must go," he told Reuters. “Sanctions, they have to realize, are not an asset, have never been an asset, they are liability and this liability, the sooner they remove this liability from the table, the sooner we will get to an agreement."
Some members of the U.S. Congress are pushing for tougher sanctions on Iran as a way of getting Teheran to drop its nuclear weapons program, but Kerry has said he does not agree with that strategy.
Lisa Schlein contributed to this report from Geneva.