Palestinian human rights advocates comment on UN official’s visit

Palestinian women mourn during the funerals of 20 Palestinians who were buried in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, November 7, 2006. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)


Palestinian human rights NGOs: on the statement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights upon the conclusion of her visit to the oPt

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR) recently visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), and has issued a follow-up statement on her visit. As human rights NGOs acting in the oPt, we welcomed her visit as a significant step towards the promotion and protection of human rights in the oPt. We were pleased that the visit gave visibility to the human rights conditions that we experience on the ground. Moreover, we also strongly supported the clear contention by HCHR that the rights of Palestinians and Israelis cannot be subject to negotiation and compromise, and that the many impediments facing the enjoyment of such entitlements must be removed.

Yet, the undersigned human rights NGOs have been distressed by the HCHR’s concluding statement. The manner in which the HCHR addressed the situation, and the choice of the language used, does not seem to help support the efforts intended to challenge such systematic, consistent and gross human rights violations as are committed in the oPt.

As we had mentioned in our former letter to her, we hoped the HCHR would experience first-hand the human rights situation on the ground in the oPt, strongly condemn the violations of the occupying power, and utilize its powers to end the impunity granted thus far to human rights violators.

However, following what is now the all too conventional line of the international community, the statement has once again equated the victim and the executor: It falls short of establishing the root causes of the problems lived in the oPt - namely the almost 40-year-old illegal belligerent occupation. The statement hence fails to establish the legal duties and obligations of Israel as an Occupying Power and a sovereign with clear obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Without clarifying this reality, the assessment of the human rights situation in the oPt remains inadequate and limited, and the violations will only continue to persist.

While the human rights impacts inflicted by Israel’s practices in the oPt - an area it occupies and practices full jurisdiction over - requires the employment of every available human rights mechanism and the need for strong advocacy (as indeed the HCHR itself utilizes in many other parts of the world), the statement restricts itself to some feeble recommendations and offers no mechanisms of follow-up.

As we had mentioned in our previous letter, we acknowledge the presence of security concerns but, at the same time, believe these must not be allowed to justify human rights violations. There is an urgent need to condemn all human rights violations in our area and, more importantly, to pursue every possible means to alleviate the prolonged, gross and systematic infringements of human rights. The HCHR’s statement falls short of this, and has thus failed to take a vital step necessary to ameliorate the human rights situation here.

Although we strongly believe that human rights are for all people and that violations by both sides are equally contrary to law and morality, we find it unhelpful to equate violations by both sides in the light of the different nature of the size, severity and duration of those violations. We had hoped that the HCHR would be able to identify the sources of all violations and appropriately “give priority to addressing the most pressing human rights violations, both acute and chronic” and “focus attention to those who are most at risk and vulnerable on multiple fronts” as the mission of OHCHR clearly states.

Indeed, while we agree that the Qassam rockets are a clear violation of international humanitarian law and must stop, we find it rather distressing that there is no mentioning of the routine violations of the same articles of law by the powerful occupying forces. This silence is especially deafening considering the human rights violations committed by the occupying power have been executed in a dramatically disproportionate manner, in terms of both the duration and the intensity of their brutality as they breach international human rights law. In particular, we refer to occupying power’s practices of settlement building, confiscation of land, willful killing of civilians, retaliation against civilians and collective punishment, and discrimination, which have been conducted without due observation of the principles of proportionality, discrimination and military necessity and other rules of international law.

We are also highly concerned by the language used in the HCHR’s statement. For example, “so many members of the Al-Athamnah family died in an artillery attack” and that “[i]n the West Bank, I visited segments of the Barrier”. The aforementioned family, however, did not die per se, but were murdered as a result of a grave breach of IHL. Indeed, their killers can, and should, be identified and brought to justice following an objective investigation as required by human rights norms. Also important, the ICJ has designated the Barrier as an illegal Wall that is being built contrary to international law; a designation that the UN bodies particularly should adhere to. The way in which serious violations of human rights were described is indeed frail and does not live up to their severity and rigorousness.

The way in which the restriction of movement regime and the humanitarian sanctions have engendered dire impacts dramatically affecting the entire Palestinian population, and their consequences on civilians’ legal entitlements, has been an issue of great influence on the Palestinian economy and human rights; particularly the right to development and a whole set of other economic, social and cultural rights (ESC). However, these are not emphasized in the HCHR’s statement. The urgency to lift all sanctions and other impediments that render enjoyment of such rights impossible are not adequately addressed.

The statement sounds too weak in tackling the violations and bringing about with due urgency specific recommendations to halt these violations. There are a “number of actions which� could usefully be undertaken by Israel to improve human rights in the region”, includes the statement. The word ‘usefully’ obscures the fact that the occupying power is legally obligated to immediately undertake all actions needed to cease its human rights violations.

Palestinian, international and Israeli human rights organizations, as well as UN human rights bodies and special procedures and mechanisms, have for a long time prescribed the sources of human rights violations and called for effective international intervention to ensure due respect of both IHL and IHRL. We have made every effort at our disposal to make the relevant information and evidences available to the HCHR and other human rights bodies. However, the language, facts and incidents that the statement incorporates does not adequately reflect the situation on the ground and fails to establish the appropriate means to ensure effective accountability which would allow for the bringing to an end the despicable human rights conditions in our region.

Al Mezan Center for Human Rights - Gaza
Palestinian Center for Human Rights
Ad Dameer Association for Human Rights

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