Civil society shows its moral strength

Palestinians gather around a crater caused by an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip. (Mohamed Al-Zanon/MaanImages)

At a time when Western governments refrain from using their power to stop Israel’s ongoing violations of international law, many civil society organizations silently watch the moral corrosion of their governments. At the “Israel Review Conference” in Geneva this month and the Russell Tribunal slated for early 2010, however, civil society will use its power and call Israel to account.

The Israel Review Conference is organized in response to the efforts to leave out the case of the systematic violation of the rights of the Palestinian people from the United Nations Durban Review Conference in Geneva from 20-24 April. The World Conference Against Racism adopted a Program of Action to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The progress made will be reviewed at the UN Durban Review Conference. Israel has tried to avoid a review of its policies and practices by staying away from Durban II, and it successfully influenced its allies to do the same.

In October 2008 the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), representing more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, published a solid position paper for Durban II. It gives many examples of Israel’s systematic and institutional discrimination against the Palestinian people. This includes the continued prevention of the return of the Palestinian refugees, the ongoing appropriation of Palestinian land in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel, the adoption of new discriminatory laws to limit the fundamental human and civil rights of Palestinians, the siege of the Gaza Strip, the ongoing segregation and house demolitions of property owned by Palestinians in Israel, and the denial of due process and effective remedies for Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

It is obvious Palestinians have not enjoyed much improvement towards equal rights since Durban I. However, the Durban Review Conference will not examine this issue. To ensure that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people will be assessed, the Israel Review Conference is organized by a civil society coalition in Geneva on 18-19 April. The partners collaborating on the conference are the Palestinian BNC, the Civil Society Forum for the Durban Review Conference, the European Coordinating Committee on Palestine, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and the International Coordinating Network on Palestine. Internationally renowned experts and actors for social and political justice will examine how the UN anti-racism instruments apply to Israel’s policies and practices towards the Palestinian people, and develop practical recommendations on how to hold Israel accountable to international law and protect the rights of the Palestinian people.

The exclusion of a review of Israel at Durban II and the formation of the Israel Review Conference follows Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza earlier this year, and questions of what international mechanisms exist to hold Israel accountable.

United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk stated that Israel’s offensive in the densely populated Gaza appeared to constitute a war crime of the “greatest magnitude.” Falk also mentioned that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip violated the Geneva Conventions. He further suggested that the UN Security Council set up an ad hoc criminal tribunal to establish accountability for war crimes in Gaza. The reluctance of the Security Council to call for an immediate ceasefire to end the bombing and killing in Gaza does not give much hope that meaningful action will be taken at the UN level.

The option to hold Israel to account at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is uncertain. Israel does not recognize the authority of the ICC, because it wants to deal with war crimes in its own way. What this entails becomes clear by how it dealt with serious allegations from Israeli soldiers that included the commission of war crimes and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions in the Gaza Strip. After an inquiry of 11 days, military Advocate-General Avichai Mandelblit closed the case. However, the Palestinian Authority expressed its recognition of the ICC’s authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in January, with the intention to give the ICC jurisdiction to launch an investigation in Gaza. ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced in early February that he will start a preliminary investigation that would include whether the ICC has the authority to proceed further. There are serious doubts that the ICC will bring the abettors of war crimes in Gaza to The Hague.

In this environment of lack of accountability for Israel at the level of international organizations, citizens took the initiative for the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in response to Israel’s impunity vis-a-vis its violations of international law. The tribunal aims to reaffirm the primacy of international law as the basis for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and hopes to raise awareness of the responsibility of the international community in the continuing denial of the rights of the Palestinian people. Experts and witnesses committees will establish the facts and build the legal arguments that will be presented to the Russell Tribunal in several world capitals in early 2010. A jury of well-known personalities respected for their high moral standing will consider the reports and hear witness testimony. The jury will announce its conclusions which certainly will attract widespread international public and political support.

The first Russell Tribunal or International War Crimes Tribunal investigated and evaluated American foreign policy and military intervention in Vietnam after the defeat of French forces in 1954. At the establishment of the Russell Tribunal, Bertrand Russell quoted the Chief Prosecutor of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, Robert H. Jackson, stating that “If certain acts and violations of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” Civil society initiatives towards freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people confirm that the same counts for Israel.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.