The Inside Story of a Senior UN Human Rights Official’s Resignation.

The Inside Story of a Senior UN Human Rights Official’s Resignation.

The G|O talks to Craig Mokhiber

Geneva, the humanitarian and human rights capital of the world, is consumed by the Israel-Hamas war. The recent, widely-reported resignation of Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), has shaken the Palais Wilson. His resignation letter reads as a scathing indictment of the Office and the UN itself, with the American-born human rights lawyer and UN human rights veteran of 32 years describing Israel’s response to Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack as a “text-book case of genocide” which, he claims, the UN is failing to prevent.

The notion of genocide is one of the most thorny in international law—with the highest threshold of proof among international crimes. Many observers told me that although they disagreed with some of the positions expressed by Craig Mokhiber, a conversation needed to take place around his letter’s central argument. “I also believe it is important to separate the messenger from the message,” one seasoned human rights defender told me.

From the moment the letter was leaked—in unclear circumstances—and went viral in late October, the UN has publicly tried to distance itself from its former high-level staff member. Mokhiber, the UN said, was “expressing his personal opinions” after having announced his intention to retire. Was Mokhiber fired, as some reports have it? Was he being investigated by the UN internal audit division, as was recently reported by The Guardian? Today in The Geneva Observer, we speak directly with Craig Mokhiber, look at the sequence of events, and address his motivations for leaving the organization.

Timeline of Events

On February 28, 2023, Gnasher Jew, a UK-based organization that describes itself as a “group of experienced online investigators who expose Holocaust deniers and antisemites around the globe” using open-source intelligence, published an exposé on its website under the headline “High-ranking UN official’s antisemitism and extreme anti-Israel bias revealed.” Following a review of his social media posts, Gnasher Jew concluded that Craig Mokhiber's tweets violated “UN rules regarding impartiality, objectivity, and independence,” and called for his social media conduct to be investigated by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).

On March 16, UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), an organization that “uses the law to prevent attempts to undermine, attack, and delegitimize Israel, Israeli organizations, Israeli citizens, and supports of Israel,” used the UN Office of Internal Oversight Service (OIOS) hotline to formally lodge a complaint. UKLFI’s Director told The G|O that it had acted after being contacted by Gnasher Jew. OIOS tells UKLFI that its “investigations division” will “carefully review” the report and decide which office is best suited to follow the matter. 

On October 13, OIOS informed UKLFI that following a review of its complaint, OIOS management “has determined that this matter would be best addressed by the High Commissioner’s Office.”

In response to a November 6 email by UKLFI enquiring about the status of the investigation, OIOS confirmed that it had closed its own file on the matter as it had been referred directly to the High Commissioner’s Office. 

Asked by The G|O to comment on the process, OHCR told us by email yesterday (November 8) that “for reasons of privacy and confidentiality, we are not at liberty to discuss matters concerning staff employment history and compliance with rules.” Asked if OHCHR was aware of Craig Mokhiber’s social media posts, the Office added that it “consistently takes action when we become aware that staff have used social media in a manner that is not in compliance with UN guidelines.”

Interview with Craig Mokhiber

(I spoke with Craig Mokhiber at length by Zoom yesterday. His interview has been condensed and edited for conciseness and clarity.)

PHM: Why and when did you decide to resign?

CM: This all started in late February, early March, in the wake of a series of Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank, pogroms in Huwara, and a number of assaults on civilians around the same time. I had been quite frustrated that the UN, including my own office, had been reticent to adopt some strong public lines that I thought were necessary in the context of those abuses. It wasn’t new, but I found a very careful trepidatious approach that was being embraced with regard to Israeli violations, which was not being applied to other situations, and that there had been a trend up until that point in which that had been manifest. It reached this kind of knee-jerk reaction, drawing back and being careful qualifying things in ways that we didn't in other situations [Mokhiber referenced Sri Lanka and Myanmar], so I was quite visible and vocal about it.

ACAPS Briefing Note: State of Palestine, Violence in Huwara, West Bank (16 March 2023) - occupied Palestinian territory
Analysis in English on occupied Palestinian territory about Education and Protection and Human Rights; published on 16 Mar 2023 by ACAPS

And then, although I was unaware of it and learned about it only recently from The Guardian, there was a campaign by a network of Israel lobby groups that are focused on the UN and make a living from attacking UN staff and UN Human Rights officials. They reviewed every public statement I had made since the 1980s but were unable to find even the most minimal utterance of anything antisemitic in any way. So, instead, what they did was to consolidate all my critiques of Israeli human rights violations and said, essentially, “Look at all these criticisms of Israel: he's an antisemite.”

It is an old tactic to conflate the state of Israel and the Jewish people. I have criticized human rights violations in dozens of countries all around the world. I've never been attacked for it. Of course, those governments are never happy. But there has never been an organized campaign. It is only when it comes to Israel that there is this attempt to silence, because there’s a well-oiled machine designed to make sure that it happens. It is supported by the US, the UK, and some European governments. Because of that, the UN broadly, and parts of our Office as well, have gotten into the habit of these trepidatious approaches because they don’t want to be subjected to pressure from powerful Member States.

Criticism of Israeli human rights violations is not antisemitic any more than criticism of Saudi violations is Islamophobic, criticism of Burmese violations is anti-Buddhist, or criticism of Indian violations is anti-Hindu. If all of those were true, then there would be no international human rights framework, and we could all go home. 

What was the reaction of the UN when in March, you started being more vocal in expressing your frustration?

There was a kind of crackdown on me, I was basically told to be silent, not to say anything in public that the High Commissioner hadn’t said. After 32 years as a senior human rights official, it’s not something that I could accept. And it became very clear to me that, on the one hand, the organization was headed in a dangerous direction that I thought was inconsistent with our mandates and, on the other, I could be more influential outside the organization than inside if I was going to be subjected to these reactions when I spoke publicly on this issue. Again, I have spoken out on human rights violations in dozens of countries around the world in all continents, but it’s only when I dare to speak out about the violations of Palestinian rights that I’m subjected to pressure internally or externally.

So, in March, I informed the High Commissioner [Volker Türk], that I was very concerned about the fear of powerful Western member states and lobbies cowing us into silence, and encouraged an approach where we would basically speak truth to power and not be cowed, because they could only succeed if we silence ourselves. I have a good relationship with the High Commissioner, so it wasn’t an angry conversation. It was a very polite exchange. I told him I intended to leave in the coming months because of this situation. And then the situation got much worse, the event in Gaza in October looked prima facie to me like a textbook case of genocide unfolding. And in my view, the reaction from the UN was wholly inadequate for the historical moment that we were facing. So, I sat down, and I put in excruciating detail what I thought was wrong with the approach that the UN was taking.

It’s not true that I was forced out of the organization—I mean, I wasn’t fired or squeezed out. But I was forced out in the sense that I was put in conditions that I didn't want to work in.

Do you agree that a review of your tweets can lead to the conclusion that you have what your critics call a clear anti-Israel bias? 

I could accept that if that was the whole story, but it is not. When you pull out only the quotes that relate to a particular country and go over a long period of time you could get the impression I am obsessed with Israel. But if you look at the broader set of human rights issues and themes and countries that I address you would reach the conclusion that I am morally and legally consistent. And as a human rights lawyer, being legally consistent is important to me.

But experts I talked to disagree with you on the genocide question. In its response, OHCHR responded that “the definition of genocide under international law is narrow and very specific. It requires proof of intent to destroy, as such, a protected group, in whole or in part—in short, to destroy people purely because of who they are. That type of investigation needs to be undertaken by a competent court, and even then, it can take years. It is a determination that is especially difficult in the midst of hostilities.”

In my legal analysis, I write that this is a textbook case of genocide because you have a situation in which a catalog of the elements of the definition of genocide contained in the UN Genocide Convention are occurring in plain sight—including large-scale killings, serious harm, bodily harm being inflicted on that population, and including the provision that talks about imposing conditions of life designed to bring out the destruction of a population. In Gaza, we know the siege and the closure, which are specifically designed to deny them health, education, housing, water, sanitation and medicine, and free movement—everything to make things as unlivable in Gaza as possible.

And then you have explicit declarations of genocidal intent. We have a situation where senior Israeli officials—including the President, the Prime Minister’s senior cabinet, ministers, and senior military officials—have publicly exposed and declared genocidal intent. Normally, when you're doing research on a case of genocide, you have to get your hands on the archives and the secret documents on the behind-the-scenes conversations to get evidence of intent. That's not the case here.

It is true, as the office says in our official talking points, that only a court of law can make that determination. But my problem is that we only say that with a crime of genocide, we are not so reticent when we're talking about war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, summary executions—you name the crime—it's only for the crime of genocide. And you wonder how that's justified. The convention is on the prohibition and prevention of genocide. But if you are only willing to make that assertion after the killing has stopped, then we are not meeting the obligations of prevention that are set out in convention and international law.

Why didn’t you mention Hamas in your letter?

I didn't mention Hamas in my letter, because the UN has no problem with criticizing armed groups like Hamas. And it has no problem with criticizing small and weak states. My letter was a complaint about where the UN was falling down, which is criticizing powerful states, and criticizing Israel. 

Do you agree that Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 qualifies as a terrorist act or not?

I think what Hamas did on October 7 included war crimes for which they should be held accountable. No doubt about it. I think they should be held accountable under the rule of law. But I don't think that there's any relationship between Hamas’ war crimes on October 7 and a credible justification for the wholesale slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

So I will repeat again, for clarity’s sake, yes, any Hamas fighters or their commanders who are implicated in war crimes on October 7 should be held accountable under the rule of law. That’s unacceptable. And any Israeli officials, military personnel, political officials, or settlers who participated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, gross violations of human rights before and after October 7 should equally be held accountable under the rule of law.

I find a bit surprising that you accuse the UN and OHCHR of bowing to pressure when the Secretary-General himself had very strong words about the situation—to the point that Israel’s ambassador to the UN in New York called for his resignation…

I think the Secretary-General was compelled to try to open up the conversation. 90 members of his own staff have been killed under those bombs. The whole world is watching this wholesale slaughter, 10,000 civilians killed in a span of just a few weeks. I think the Secretary-General understood very well that this is not a moment in which you can be too gentle or too silent. Now, he could have gone further, he could have spoken about the Israeli perpetrators of war crimes in the same condemnatory language that he used with regard to Hamas.

At Rafah crossing, Türk says both Israel and Hamas have committed war crimes
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reiterated the call for an urgent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas during a visit to the Rafah crossing and El Arish Hospital in Egypt on Wednesday.

Why did you write this letter? Who was your audience? What were you trying to achieve with it?

I wrote it to the High Commissioner and shared it with other senior officials and colleagues close to me. I was writing it to the UN. I had no intention of leaking it myself, but it was leaked. Actually, I was not disappointed when it was, once I saw the impact that it had on getting people to open up and expand the conversation inside the UN—and outside the UN as well. 

I was very surprised at the uptake of the letter—I mean, I literally sat down, wrote that letter, and sent it. I didn’t edit it, I didn’t write drafts, I just poured out what was in my heart. And that came from my conversations inside the UN going back for years. I’m not a Palestine specialist. I've worked on dozens of countries, on dozens of themes. I’m not criticizing the whole UN. I love the UN, I dedicated my life to it. The engine of the UN are people who are there because they believe in human rights, development, and peace. They hate war. They hate inequality. They hate poverty, they hate human rights violations, and the arrogance of power. I have nothing but praise for them. My problem is with the political side of the house, which is to say the political leadership, the political appointees, and the intergovernmental mechanisms like the Security Council, that have so terribly failed humanity.

Craig Mokhiber was speaking with Philippe Mottaz.