The director of the New York office of the UN high commissioner for human rights has left his post, protesting that the UN is “failing” in its duty to prevent what he categorizes as genocide of Palestinian civilians in Gaza under Israeli bombardment and citing the US, UK and much of Europe as “wholly complicit in the horrific assault”.
Craig Mokhiber wrote on 28 October to the UN high commissioner in Geneva, Volker Turk, saying: “This will be my last communication to you” in his role in New York.
Mokhiber, who was stepping down having reached retirement age, wrote: “Once again we are seeing a genocide unfolding before our eyes and the organization we serve appears powerless to stop it.”
He said that the UN had failed to prevent previous genocides against the Tutsis in Rwanda, Muslims in Bosnia, the Yazidi in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Rohingya in Myanmar and wrote: “High Commissioner we are failing again.
“The current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist colonial settler ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs … leaves no room for doubt.”
Mokhiber added: “This is text book case of genocide” and said the US, UK and much of Europe were not only “refusing to meet their treaty obligations” under the Geneva Conventions but were also arming Israel’s assault and providing political and diplomatic cover for it.
The outgoing director’s departure letter did not mention the 7 October attack by Hamas on southern Israel killing more than 1,400 people and taking 240 hostages. Even more contentiously, his letter calls for the effective end to the state of Israel.
“We must support the establishment of a single, democratic secular state in all of historic Palestine, with equal rights for Christians, Muslims, and Jews,” he wrote, adding: “and, therefore, the dismantling of the deeply racist, settler-colonial project and an end to apartheid across the land.”
Mokhiber has worked for the UN since 1992, serving in a number of increasingly prominent roles. He led the high commissioner’s work on devising a human rights-based approach to development, and acted as a senior human rights adviser in Palestine, Afghanistan and Sudan.
A lawyer who specialises in international human rights law, he lived in Gaza in the 1990s.
In his role as director of the New York office of the high commissioner for human rights, he has come under occasional fire from pro-Israeli groups for his comments on social media. He was criticised for posting support of the boycott, divest, sanctions (BDS) movement and accusing Israel of apartheid – an accusation which he repeated in his retirement letter.
Journalists and academics began posting the letter’s content to X, formerly known as Twitter, on Tuesday afternoon.
A spokesperson for the UN in New York sent the Guardian a statement about Mokhiber, saying: “I can confirm that he is retiring today. He informed the UN in March 2023 of his upcoming retirement, which takes effect tomorrow. The views in his letter made public today are his personal views.”
The statement went on: “The position of the office on the grave situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel is reflected in our reports and public statements.”
Reaction to Mokhiber’s outspoken departure from such a prominent UN position was mixed. Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian that he had made a powerful argument against double standards in the stance of the world body.
“You don’t have to agree with everything in the letter to see that he’s made a powerful and depressing case that the UN lost its way on human rights when it comes to Israel and Palestine, partly due to pressure from the US, Israel and other governments. It’s not too late to turn the UN ship around, but they need to do it quickly.”
By contrast, Anne Bayefsky, who directs Touro College’s Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust in New York, accused Mokhiber on social media of “overt antisemitism”. She said he had used a UN letterhead to call for “wiping Israel off the map”.