UN official Khalaf resigns, stands by report accusing Israel of 'apartheid'
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Senior UN official Rima Khalaf announced her resignation on Friday, saying that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had asked her to withdraw a report that accuses Israel of imposing an "apartheid regime" on Palestinians.
Khalaf, the head of the Lebanon-based Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), a UN commission that promotes cooperation between 18 Arab countries, read out the letter of resignation that she had sent to the UN Secretary General at a press conference in Beirut.
“I believe people should not only have the freedom to speak truth to power, but they have the duty to do so.” she said.
“In the space of two months you have instructed me to withdraw two reports produced by ESCWA, not due to any fault found in the reports and probably not because you disagreed with their content, but due to political pressure by member states who gravely violate the rights of the people of the region.”
An "apartheid regime"
The ESCWA report, which was released on Wednesday and drew sharp criticism from Israel and the United States, concludes that "Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole”.
This accusation has previously been made by critics of Israel but this is the first time a UN body has made the allegation. However, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric indicated on Wednesday that the report does not reflect the views of the secretary general and was done without consultations with the UN secretariat.
US and Israel welcome resignation
Khalaf’s resignation was welcomed by Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon who described the report as an "attempt to smear and falsely label the only true democracy in the Middle East by creating a false analogy” and called it “a blatant lie."
The United States’ Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, also said Khalaf’s resignation was necessary.
“When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign. UN agencies must do a better job of eliminating false and biased work, and I applaud the Secretary-General’s decision to distance his good office from it.”
On Friday evening, the report was pulled from the ESCWA website.
Guterres defends himself
Asked whether Guterres caved in to pressure from the US President Donald Trump’s administration, UN spokesperson Dujarric said: "This is not about pressure. This is about the secretary-general having the authority to manage the organisation in a way that is done effectively and can deliver on its goals."
Yet, according to FRANCE 24 sources, Guterres had known about the report for months. It was circulated to member states on the 15th of December 2016.
Khalaf’s term at ESCWA was due to end in two weeks, but Guterres had reportedly asked her to work for the UN for at least another year in another role. She refused.
Guterres under pressure
Guterres has been in office for just under 100 days and has come under fire for appearing weak in his response to pressure from the Trump administration to curb any criticism of Israel.
In mid-February, Guterres’ efforts to appoint former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a top UN job were roundly thwarted.
According to FRANCE 24 sources, Antonio Guterres believed that the US had been consulted and had given him the green light on Fayyad's appointment to lead the UN mission in Libya. But the US then blocked the move just minutes before Fayyad was confirmed in his new role.
As the US threatens to cut its financial contribution to the UN, the new US ambassador, Nikki Haley, has been very vocal in her criticism of what she calls the UN’s “anti-Israel bias” and its inefficiency.
On Thursday, Haley released a statement saying that “in many areas, the UN spends more money than it should.”
The US currently contributes about $10 billion per year to the UN but the Trump administration could cut as much as 50 percent of its funding for UN programmes.
Political blessing in disguise or damaging?
Guterres was recently in the Middle East trying to build bridges with Arab leaders, but it is clear that he is negotiating in troubled waters when it comes to dealing with the new US administration.
Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations told FRANCE 24 that in some ways this mini-crisis has been a political blessing in disguise for Guterres.
“He desperately needed a way to reassure the US that he is not anti-Israel. His irritation over the "apartheid" report, and Khalaf's resignation, have unexpectedly allowed him to boost his credibility with Washington.”
But Gowan does not believe Guterres will get much leverage with the new administration, nor does he think he will win support from Arab countries.
“This incident will lower the UN’s reputation in the Arab world further and will raise concerns among UN officials that Guterres will not protect them from US pressure in future. There will be a fear that the Secretary-General is willing to sacrifice individual officials to try to defend the organisation as whole.”
According to Khalaf, this was the second time, since Guterres took office on January 1, that he had asked her to pull a report. The previous one focused on injustice in the Arab world.