UN agency head resigns, stands by Israel report

UN agency head resigns, stands by Israel report

UN Undersecretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf speaks during a news conference announcing her resignation from the United Nations in Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday. — Reuters

BEIRUT — The head of a United Nations agency that promotes development in Arab countries resigned Friday after refusing to withdraw a controversial report concluding that Israel has established an “apartheid regime” that discriminates against Palestinians. The report titled “Israeli Practices Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” which was published earlier this week by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, drew swift criticism from UN and Israeli officials. Its authors concluded that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that systematically institutionalizes racial oppression and domination of the Palestinian people as a whole.” Rima Khalaf, a Jordanian who heads Beirut-based ESCWA and is a UN undersecretary-general, announced her resignation at a hastily called press conference in the Lebanese capital, saying she couldn’t accept being subjected to pressure from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to withdraw the report. She described the report as “the first of its kind,” adding that it “concludes scientifically and according to international law that Israel has established an apartheid regime.” “It was expected, naturally, that Israel and its allies would exercise immense pressure on the UN secretary-general to distance himself from the report and to ask for it to be withdrawn,” she said. When Guterres instructed her on Thursday morning to withdraw the report, Khalaf said, “I asked him to review his position but he insisted on it.” “Based on that, I submitted to him my resignation from the United Nations,” she said. On Wednesday, following the report’s release, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said it was published without any prior consultations with the UN Secretariat and its views do not reflect those of the secretary-general. He confirmed Friday that Khalaf had submitted her resignation and said the report had been removed from the ESCWA website. Asked whether Guterres succumbed to pressure from the Trump administration, Dujarric said: “This is not about pressure. This is about the secretary-general having the authority to manage the organization in a way that is done effectively and can deliver on its goals.” “A secretary-general cannot accept that an undersecretary-general or any other senior UN official that reports to him would authorize the publication under the UN name, under the U.N. logo, without consulting the competent departments and even himself,” Dujarric said. “It’s about senior officials dealing with a matter that implicates other parts of the system - that they consult and they coordinate.” Since Guterres became the UN chief on Jan. 1, Dujarric said he has been “very clear in his advocacy for the rights of the Palestinian people” and “for a two-state solution and against any unilateral moves that would undermine that goal”. Khalaf’s resignation was welcomed by Israel and the United States, Israel’s closest ally, but Palestinians praised the report and expressed regret. US Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement: “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.” Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon called the report an “attempt to smear and falsely label the only true democracy in the Middle East by creating a false analogy is despicable and constitutes a blatant lie.” A Palestinian rights activist, Omar Barghouti, described the report as potentially the “first beam of light that ushers the dawn of sanctions against” Israel. Mahmoud Nawajaa of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, said Palestinians are “deeply grateful” to Khalaf “who preferred to resign in dignity than to surrender her principles to US-Israeli bullying.” The ESCWA report was written by Richard Falk, a former UN special investigator on human rights in the Palestinian territories who was highly critical of both Israel and the United States, and professor Virginia Tilley of Southern Illinois University. — AP