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UN fears Israeli reforms will undermine judiciary

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GENEVA: The United Nations’ human rights chief on Tuesday voiced concern that a proposed overhaul of Israel’s judicial system would “drastically undermine” the ability of the judiciary to uphold human rights and the rule of law.

Israel’s parliament is pushing ahead with changes promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government which it says are needed to rein in activist judges who intervene in politics.

The proposals, which have sparked mass protests, could increase the government’s sway in choosing judges and set limits on the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down legislation.

“Breaking from decades of settled practice, such a law would drastically undermine the ability of the judiciary to vindicate individual rights and to uphold the rule of law as an effective institutional check on executive and legislative power,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk.

His statement added that the changes would create greater political influence over the judicial selection system.

Israel’s mission in Geneva declined to comment on it. Its ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Meirav Eilon Shahar, has said a previous statement from Turk showed prejudice.

Netanyahu’s govt wants to rein in ‘activist judges’ who intervene in politics

Austria’s Turk, who became High Commissioner in October, earlier this month called on Israel to ensure respect of international rights law after his office documented a record 151 killings of Palestinians by security forces last year.

Israel slams UN call

On Tuesday, PM Netanyahu denounced United Nations’ calls to pause judicial reform plans as an “absurdity”, after lawmakers moved closer towards boosting politicians’ power over the courts.

“What an absurdity,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement, after comments by UN rights chief Volker Turk, adding that it would have done better to “condemn the violations of human rights in Iran, Syria or the Palestinian Authority”.

Mass protests

Israel’s parliament took a step towards approving a controversial judicial reform on Tuesday despite weeks of mass protests against the legislation critics see as a threat to democracy.

President Isaac Herzog — who has been attempting to broker dialogue on the divisive issue, which would boost the powers of politicians over the courts — said there was widespread “fear for the nation’s unity”.

“This is a difficult morning,” said the president, whose powers are largely ceremonial. Herzog said at a conference organised by the Ynet news website.

“We need to make every effort to continue dialogue after this vote, to reach an agreed framework to take us out of this difficult period.”

The Tuesday vote passed despite weeks of protests in Israel’s main cities.

Lawmakers in the early hours voted by 63 to 47 to support a key bill in the reform at first reading. It will now return to the law committee for more debate, ahead of its second and third readings in the Knesset.

Tens of thousands again took to the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Monday when, inside parliament, opposition lawmakers disrupted the debate with shouts of “shame”.

‘Drastically undermine’ rights

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, the centrist former prime minister, hit out at government lawmakers after the vote passed. “History will judge you for this night — for the attack on democracy, the harm to the economy, the harm to security, for tearing the unity of the people to shreds and simply not caring,” Lapid said in a tweet.

The architect of the bill, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, called on the opposition to “come and talk”. “We can reach understandings,” he said.

Netanyahu said: “We need immediate dialogue with no preconditions.” The prime minister has presented the judicial reforms as key to restoring the balance between the branches of government, arguing judges currently have too much power over elected officials.

Another bill advanced as part of the reform would give the 120-member parliament the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes.

The opposition accuses the government of a power grab, and weekly protests against the legislation since early January have been joined by tens of thousands of people.

Critics, including Supreme Court president Esther Hayut, have condemned the reform as an assault on the independence of Israel’s judiciary.

Some of Netanyahu’s critics have also tied the reform plan to his ongoing corruption trial, arguing he is seeking to undermine a judicial system he has accused of targeting him unfairly for political reasons.

Netanyahu has denied the corruption charges. The veteran leader, who reclaimed power late last year after spending 14 months in opposition, has also firmly rejected any link between the reforms and his own trial.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2023


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