The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is a body of eighteen independent experts that monitors states’ compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  It convened on August 14 under its “urgent procedures” provision to consider Israel’s controversial decision to deny Israeli residence permits to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry to Israeli citizens.

Analysis: Is Israel’s decision a legitimate and necessary security measure or bad public policy, constitutionally unsound, even racist?  Israelis have argued both sides in the Knesset and on the op-ed pages.  A ruling on the issue is pending from the Israel Supreme Court.  Whichever side prevails in Israel, CERD’s action was an inappropriate use of the “urgent procedures” provision.

Since its establishment in 1993, this provision has been invoked mostly for cases of ethnic cleansing in the course of armed conflict, e.g. in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo.  Yet, CERD considered the complaint against Israel to be of such urgency that it could not wait for it to be treated during its scheduled examination of Israel’s treaty compliance in December.

By comparison, CERD reprimanded Russia during its regular review in March, concluding that “residence registration is used as a means of discriminating against certain ethnic groups, and that the lack of residence registration is used to deny a number of political, economic and social rights.”  In this case, freedom of movement is restricted on an ethnic basis for Russia’s own citizens within their own country.  Freedom of movement is enumerated as a basic civil right in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.   One CERD member even stated that there is no right in the human rights treaties for a foreign national to acquire residence in the country of his or her spouse.  Clearly, the Russian restriction is more egregious than the Israeli case.

In March, CERD also criticized Saudi Arabia: “The Committee is concerned at allegations that a disproportionate number of foreigners are facing the death penalty. The Committee encourages the State party to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions who has requested information on several cases of migrant workers who have not received legal assistance and have been sentenced to death.”  What could be more urgent for CERD than the discriminatory application of the death penalty and the execution of foreign workers who had no access to a lawyer?  Yet, these complaints were also reviewed under regular procedures.

During the special meeting on Israel, the actual discussion of the complaint was rather flippant.  Though dozens of Israelis had been killed in suicide attacks by Palestinians who married Israeli Arabs and established residence in Israel, this fact was brushed aside by the CERD.  Nor did it matter that Denmark, Finland, and Austria (and probably others) have laws that prevent citizens of hostile states from acquiring citizenship.  That the law excludes Palestinian Arabs, but not Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese or other Arabs was not even considered.  The Chairman simply said, “We know what we want to say.  This is discrimination based on race.”

Perhaps someone should inform CERD that Egypt’s Nationality Law of 1975 includes the sentence: “Zionists shall not benefit by any of the provisions of the present article.”  Egyptian Zionism is admittedly not an urgent issue, but it would be interesting to hear the Egyptian government’s explanation to CERD at its next regular review.

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