Momentum is building among Irish human rights activists and within the political system for a unilateral ban on imports from illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine. Trócaire, the development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, launched in September a campaign for an end to trade with illegal Israeli settlements stating in a report that “The Irish and UK governments should push within the EU for the introduction of an EU-wide trade ban on settlement produce” (“Sustaining Injustice: EU trade with Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories,” Trócaire, September [PDF]).
This followed hot on the heels of a presentation on settlements by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel to an Irish parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and trade. The committee has since unanimously agreed to write to Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore “calling for a national ban on imports from illegal Israeli settlements” (“Call for ban on Israeli settlement imports,” The Irish Times, 19 September).
As Ireland prepares to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union in 2013, the timing could hardly be better for the country to announce a unilateral ban; a move which Trócaire argues would “have a strong legal, economic, political and symbolic impact.” Moreover, Ireland is better positioned than many of its European counterparts to lead the way on an import ban. It has a long and distinguished record of fighting global poverty based on development needs rather than advancing national self-interest.
This record has been informed by Ireland’s shared experiences with many developing countries of conflict, famine, mass emigration and widespread poverty. These factors go a long way towards explaining the Irish people’s overwhelming support for development aid in the midst of a deep economic recession (“Government should keep promise on overseas aid, says survey,” The Irish Times, 11 September 2012).
No excuse for inaction
Last year Gilmore stated that he “would support any move at EU level to exclude settlement products from entry to the EU” (Dáil Éireann Debate, Vol. 744 No. 4, Written Answers - Human Rights Issues, 25 October 2011). The minister has ruled out a unilateral ban, claiming that a ban could only be introduced as a result of a common EU position.
However, in a legal opinion on a unilateral ban, James Crawford, professor of international law at Cambridge University, found that “there do not appear to be any EC [European Community] laws which could be breached by a member state taking the decision to ban the import of settlement produce on policy grounds.” Crawford argued that EU governments intent on introducing a ban would have recourse to the EU’s association agreement with Israel. That accord, which entered into force in stipulates that there must be “respect for human rights and democratic principles.”
The reality confronting the Irish government and other EU members is that until they implement a ban on imports they are, as Trócaire suggests, “tacitly supporting them, aiding their economic viability, and thus adding to their permanence.” Ireland needs, as a matter of urgency, to bridge the gap between rhetoric condemning the construction of settlements and action that will make it happen.
Laying down a moral imperative
Although the value of settlement imports into Ireland is estimated at a very modest €7 to €8 million per year, the symbolic value of a ban would be much higher, resonating across the world, and offering great impetus and confidence to other states to follow suit. Ireland would be laying down a moral imperative to partners in the EU and UN to follow their lead on the basis that meaningful steps toward negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can only happen following a cessation of settlement construction.
Ireland has an early opportunity to put illegal settlements high on the agenda for its presidency when EU foreign ministers meet on 15 October. Eamon Gilmore should urge his fellow ministers to take concrete action in withdrawing EU trade with settlements that collectively amounts to about €100 million worth of goods coming into Europe each year including fresh fruit and vegetables, cosmetics, wine, plastic goods and flowers.
This trade helps to make the settlements economically viable and runs contrary to Ireland and the EU’s stated position on settlements. The infringement of Palestinian rights and increasing levels of poverty caused by the settlements demands nothing less than Ireland’s best efforts to implement a unilateral trade ban and urge other EU governments to do the same.
Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education, a development NGO based in Belfast and editor of the development education journal Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review. His publications include (with Gerard McCann) From the Local to the Global: Key issues in Development Studies (Pluto Press). He is currently delivering education projects in the Gaza Strip.