Just days before Israel released Palestinian football hero Mahmoud Sarsak from three years of detention without charge or trial, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs apparently gave her stamp of approval to Israel’s widely condemned practice of “administrative detention.”
In response to a question from members of the European Parliament, the EU’s top foreign affairs official pointedly refused to condemn Israel’s practice, even as Amnesty International has again called on Israel to end it once and for all.
Currently more than 300 Palestinian political prisoners are held by Israel without charge or trial.
Moreover, the circumstances in which she gave her statement suggest Ashton acted in order to ensure that Israel’s human rights abuses would not be discussed by the Foreign Affairs committee of the European Parliament.
Ashton ignores question on administrative detention for months
Back in February, as Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan made world headlines with his 66-day hunger strike, two European Green members of the European Parliament posed questions to Ashton about Israel’s use of administrative detention.
Judith Sargentini of the Netherlands and Nicole Kiil-Nielsen of France asked:
How does the High Representative [Ashton] assess the use of ‘administrative detention’, in the framework of the Treaties, the Charter, the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights], ECHR case-law and international law, (especially, but not limited to, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention)?
Their multi-part question asked Ashton if she was “willing to condemn the use of ‘administrative detention’ by the Israeli authorities, in the case of Khader Adnan and in general? If not, why not?”
It also asked Ashton if she would “call on the Israeli authorities to ensure that persons placed in ‘administrative detention’ are either indicted/put on trial or released? If not, why not?”
Amnesty again condemns Israeli practice
Before we get to Ashton’s answers, it is important to remember how international human rights campaigners view Israel’s practice.
Yesterday, Amnesty International welcomed Israel’s release of Sarsak but once again called on Israel to end the use administrative detention:
“While the long overdue release of Mahmoud al-Sarsak is a huge relief to his family and friends, it doesn’t reflect any fundamental change in the use of administrative detention as state policy by the Israeli authorities,” said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director. “In fact it further underscores just how unjust, arbitrary and secretive this measure is.”
Last month, Amnesty issued an important report called “Starved of justice: Palestinians detained without trial by Israel” detailing the shocking abuses Palestinian prisoners face.
Ashton plays dumb about Israeli abuses
But when Ashton’s answer finally came on 6 July, there was no condemnation at all, only this bureaucratese which if anything justifies Israel’s widespread use of jailing Palestinians under occupation without charge or trial:
Without a determination in each individual case of the grounds for administrative detention and the legal basis thereof, it is impossible to generically brand administrative detention as illegal. This includes a determination of the legality of time spans for detention. However, administrative detention when properly sanctioned by a legal basis does not operate in a legal vacuum and needs, inter alia, to provide for the possibility of review of the requirement for continued detention by competent authorities.
The HR/VP [High Representative] has set out her concerns with regard to the extensive use by Israel of administrative detention clearly in the statement of 17 February 2012.
That’s it! Ashton’s reference to the 17 February 2012 statement points back to an equally weasel-worded utterance extracted from her only after several requests.
Note also how Ashton plays dumb, as if there are not mountains of evidence from a variety of credible sources, not least the Amnesty International report, about Israel’s abusive practices which would allow her to judge whether or not these amounted to violations of international human rights law.
Did Ashton seek to keep discussion of Israel’s abuses off European Parliament agenda?
Ashton’s mealy-mouthed statement may not be the end of her effort to shield Israel from scrutiny. There is also an indication that she may have timed her long-delayed answer to prevent the issue of administrative detention being discussed publicly in the European Parliament.
Because one of the questioners is a member of the Dutch Greens, I asked Oguz Arikboga, a policy advisor on foreign affairs for Groenlinks Europa (the Dutch Greens in the European Parliament) to provide some background.
Arikboga explained that normally written parliamentary questions to the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) are answered within about 6 weeks, though this can extend to 8-9 weeks with questions to Ashton.
But in this case, Ashton took almost five months to answer the question and, Arikboga said, that was after Parliament sent Ashton 4 formal notifications to provide an answer.
“If the Commission or in this case Ashton doesn’t answer the question within the given time limit,” Arikboga explained to me, then the Member of the European Parliament (MEP), “has the right to put it on the agenda of the relevant parliamentary committee.”
And so after months of Ashton’s stalling, “we sent an email saying we wanted this to be put on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs committee,” Arikboga said. And then, “Ashton suddenly ‘answered’ the question.”
Of course Ashton’s answer is a non-answer, carefully crafted to say nothing that could be construed as criticism of Israel.
But whether this was Ashton’s intention or not, it ensured that the question would not go on the Foreign Affairs Committee agenda where Ashton or her minions could be asked embarrassing questions in public.