Rima Khalaf, now former-Executive Secretary of the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), resigned today in protest over pressure to withdraw a report that described Israeli actions against Palestinians as an “apartheid regime”.
This pressure allegedly came directly from UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “The Secretary-General issued his orders to me yesterday morning to withdraw the report. I asked him to review his position but he insisted,” Khalaf said. “Therefore I submitted to him my resignation from the UN.”
Khalaf is a Jordanian native who was elected to the position of Executive Secretary in 2010 and has been employed by the UN as an expert in Arab relations since 2000 following her successful career in politics in Jordan. She continues to stand by her report, having broadcast her expectations upon its release that “Israel and its allies will exercise pressure on the UN Secretary-General to distance himself from the report.”
She was quickly proven correct, with Israel’s Foreign Ministry releasing a statement that likened the report to Der Sturmer – an anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda publication. United States Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, used less aggressive language, but concurred that they were “outraged” by Khalaf’s work and demanded that the UN secretariat “withdraw the report altogether.”
In response to this controversy, the UN removed the report from their official websites. A spokesperson for Guterres held a press conference after the removal and stated, “This is not about content, this is about process… The secretary-general cannot accept that an under-secretary-general or any other senior UN official that reports to him would authorize the publication under the UN name, under the UN logo, without consulting the competent departments and even himself.”
Al Jazeera’s Beirut correspondent, Imtiaz Tyab, called this response “very curious”, pointing out that it was highly unlikely that the UN had been unaware of the details of the report given that members of the media had been given advanced embargoed copies of the report and invited to a press conference yesterday.
“That the UN is now saying that the official procedures hadn’t been followed, that they were not aware of the language inside the report, when even many in the media were aware of its publication and its contents…” he said, “[it] feels like yet another chapter in the very strained and complicated relationship the UN has with Israel.”
The series of events are an uncomfortable reminder to UN staff that their personal beliefs need to be weighed against the political expedience that allows the UN to continue to exist. Rima Khalaf made a principled choice that she was unwilling to stay silent on the issue of Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people through “distinct laws, policies and practices,” but that choice has cost her dearly.