In October 2008 the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) published a strategic position paper for the upcoming Durban Review Conference, which will be held from 20-24 April 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland. At the Conference, attending nations will assess the progress made toward the Program of Action adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, which called for end racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. However, Western governments have repeatedly sidelined efforts to bring the case of the systematic violation of the rights the Palestinian people forward in the Durban review process. It is incomprehensible how the issue of institutional racial discrimination of Palestinians by the Israeli government cannot be a topic in the UN global process to eliminate racial discrimination.
The BNC, representing over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations that united around the call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions initiatives against Israel, is currently the sole unified voice for the Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations representing all Palestinians. In preparation for the conference, the BNC has developed a well-documented position paper that is firmly rooted in the language of international law. It presents an overview of practical measures undertaken by international civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and suggests recommendations to work jointly on an effective action program.
The Durban Declaration and Program of Action adopted in 2001 laid out the principles for states and the United Nations to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. In the subsection of the declaration on vulnerable groups and victims of racial discrimination the Palestinian people are mentioned as a people under foreign occupation, and recognized is their inalienable right to self-determination and the right of the refugees to return voluntarily to their homes and properties in dignity and safety. The BNC rightly notes that, although the Palestinian people are explicitly identified as a victim in the Durban Declaration, no reference is made to the racism and racial discrimination against them. The BNC considers this a serious omission because the root cause of the conflict is not addressed and as a consequence Durban’s Program of Action lacked substantial operative recommendations.
The BNC position paper provides multiple examples of Israel’s systematic and institutional discrimination against the Palestinian people. This includes:
- The continued prevention of the return of the Palestinian refugees by means of force, law and court rulings;
- The confiscation of 3,350 square kilometers (almost 60 percent) of the West Bank for the purpose of Jewish colonization, including Ongoing settlement and attempts to isolate and segregate East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley;
- Passage of discriminatory laws by the Israeli parliament to limit the fundamental human and civil rights of Palestinians;
- The siege of the Gaza Strip;
- The ongoing segregation and house demolitions of Palestinians in Israel, including Bedouin of the Negev;
- The expropriation of Palestinian-owned land inside Israel;
- Denial of due process and effective remedies for roughly 11,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, including those held in administrative detention that are vulnerable to torture and related forms of ill treatment.
Although the 2001 Durban Conference did not establish follow-up mechanisms for its Program of Action, UN organizations have continued to examine Israel’s regime over the Palestinian people. Over the last ten years the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) noted various forms of institutionalized racial discrimination in its periodical reviews of the State of Israel. In 2003 CESCR expressed its particular concern about the status of “Jewish nationality,” which is based on exclusive preferential treatment for persons of Jewish nationality under Israel’s Law of Return, resulting in practice in discriminatory treatment against Palestinians.
In 2007, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) repeatedly referred in its review of the State of Israel to Article 3 of the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination in which states condemn racial segregation and apartheid, and undertake to prevent, prohibit and eradicate all such practices. CERD characterized Israel’s policy of mainstreaming separate “Arab and Jewish sectors” in the areas of education, health and housing, and the lack of equal access to public services and state land of Palestinian citizens inside Israel as “segregation.” CERD also raised concerns about Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), including the building of the “separation wall,” expansion of the Jewish settlements, severe restriction on the Palestinians’ freedom of movement, home demolitions as well as unequal distribution of resources and services.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the OPT has reported that since 2005 Israel’s military occupation is not a “normal” form of occupation. Rather it is emblematic of a regime of a colonizing power under the guise of occupation which includes many of the worst features of Apartheid. This includes fragmentation of the territory, a policy of mass detention, and a system of separate roads and permits which restrict freedom of movement on grounds of nationality, religion and ethnicity.
Building on the analysis of these UN bodies, the BNC position paper states that Israel has established and developed a regime of institutionalized racial discrimination that caters to the interest and advantage of the dominant group, the Jews, and maintains the inferior status of the indigenous Palestinian people and oppresses them systematically. This enables Israel to assert control over a maximum amount of Palestinian land with a minimum number of Palestinians through colonization, denial of refugee rights, and forced population transfer. The BNC suggests feasible, practical recommendations for civil society, NGOs, and the private sector to counter this regime and play a constructive role in realizing the rights of the Palestinian people.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced on 19 November that Israel will boycott the UN Durban Review Conference, stating that “The conference has nothing to do with fighting racism” and that Israel will “not legitimize the Durban II conference.” She also called on the international community “not to participate in a conference which seeks to legitimize hatred and extremism under the banner of a fight against racism.” After reading the BNC’s thorough analysis that is based on information of solid sources, it is difficult to grasp Livni’s analysis. States and NGOs involved in the Durban Review Conference would do well to carefully read the BNC position paper and act upon it by standing up for justice and equality. Martin Luther King Jr. said about the struggle against racism that “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be … The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.