No peace without human rights

Ariel Sharon is due to meet George Bush at the White House this week where the two men will discuss the latest Middle East roadmap - intended to pave the way for lasting peace. The roadmap is deeply flawed in one key respect. It fails to provide the essential human rights protection for a pattern of abuses by Israelis and Palestinians alike. And yet, peace is impossible, unless the importance of protecting civilians is clearly acknowledged by both sides.

Human rights are the missing guest at the diplomatic table - when Colin Powell met Sharon in Jerusalem last week, the talk was about security, security, security. Nowhere does the roadmap text mention obligations like the need to investigate and bring to justice those who deliberately attack civilians or commit other international crimes. There is no provision for human rights experts in the body meant to judge progress and monitor success. Commitments to uphold key obligations in international law avoid the language of human rights altogether. Instead, presented as one benchmark among many, they are treated as if they were a form of concession - perhaps contingent on steps taken by the other side - rather than as a basic starting point.

Israeli abuses, including the killing of civilians, are described by the roadmap as “actions undermining trust” - an oddly understated phrase, that hardly suggests that Israel will be under strong pressure to end such practices. Meanwhile, there is talk of reforming the Palestinian Authority - but no attention to the legal structure that must support and guarantee it. This, despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority at first employed state security and military courts unfairly to hand out death sentences while simultaneously failing to deploy the criminal justice system against organisers of suicide bombings.

In the first twenty-four hours after the roadmap was released, at least nine civilians were killed, and more than 150 injured, in a surge of violence on both sides. They will not be the last to die.

And yet, the roadmap does not need to be this way. The sponsors of the roadmap - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, known as the Quartet - have helped negotiate an end to other, equally violent conflicts. There has been time to learn the lessons in recent years. The Oslo accords emphasised security and policing, at the expense of human rights - which received just three brief mentions in the 165-page interim agreement of 1995. All sides are now paying the price of this neglect.

Israelis and Palestinians alike will be eager to downplay their legal and human rights obligations - in the name of increased security. The Quartet members should enforce these obligations so that both sides come to understand that these internationally binding standards are not just intended to protect them when they are hurt, but are to protect civilians on the other side too. Then, and only then, can confidence-building measures really take hold.

Quartet members must use international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights standards in defining benchmarks and judging progress - which would give the bitterly-contested process a better chance of success. They must make clear that presently inbuilt benchmarks that involve fundamental obligations under IHL, otherwise known as the laws of war - respecting the life of the civilian population, access to drinking water or emergency medical services, for example - must be observed and cannot be used as bargaining chips. Finally, a human rights “champion” should be created - an independent human rights body that would form part of the monitoring mechanism.

The current proposal is for four committees: security, humanitarian, reform of the Palestinian Authority, and a committee dealing with other issues, including settlements. There should be a fifth committee, which would report and act on human rights violations as they occur during the three-phase process - a vital function, given the potential for such violations to undermine public confidence in the value of negotiation. The committee would provide a vital counterbalance against the roadmap’s inbuilt incentives to commit human rights abuses in the name of security. The idea of such mechanisms is not new; they have played a key role in strengthening peace processes in Guatemala, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere.

If the Quartet members are ready to take these basic steps - and there are no technical or practical reasons not to do so - the roadmap could yet succeed. In the absence of such steps, we can expect a repetition of the failures of the past, and the brutal nihilism that those failures create. Again and again - in a destroyed living room in Jenin, in the desolate rubble of Rafah, in the tiny villages of the West Bank - I have encountered the same mixture of despondency and defiance. As one woman in Jenin told me, explaining her support for suicide bombers: “We have nothing more to lose. We can’t do anything. Look around you: we are dead already.” Like other inhabitants of Jerusalem, I now recognise the crump and roar which denotes another blown-up bus or cafe. The comment made to me by one Israeli in the wake of the latest violence was as depressing as it was typical: “Every time an Arab dies, I feel happy - because it’s the only thing we can do.”

That mirror of hopelessness means deadlock, which the Quartet could help to break, if only it shows the political will to do so. Security can be gained, by emphasising the right to life; it can never be gained, by claiming the right to kill.

* Miranda Sissons is the author of a number of Human Rights Watch reports on Israel and the Occupied Territories.