Travel bans violate freedom of movement

Shawan Jabarin accepts the Geuzenpenning award for human rights defenders in Ramallah. (Al-Haq)

Despite international media attention and considerable diplomatic pressure from the Netherlands, Israel did not allow the general director of the Palestinian organization Al-Haq, Shawan Jabarin, to travel to the Netherlands to receive the prestigious Dutch Geuzenpenning award for human rights defenders on 13 March 2009. Israel’s travel ban on Jabarin and other human rights defenders on the basis of secret evidence violates principles for a fair trial and the basic human right of free movement, resembling the behavior of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Al-Haq is an independent, Palestinian non-governmental human rights organization based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Ramallah. The Geuzenpenning honors the historic resistance group, the Geuzen, who fought the occupying German army in the Netherlands during the Second World War. The Geuzenpenning award keeps alive the ideals of resisting oppression and promoting and maintaining democracy as well as heightening awareness in the Netherlands and globally of all forms of dictatorship, discrimination and racism.

The Israeli government has forbidden Shawan Jabarin from traveling abroad ever since he was appointed director of Al-Haq in 2006. Before his appointment, Jabarin traveled to many countries, including Ireland, where he received a master’s degree in human rights in 2005.

The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Verhagen reportedly put a lot of pressure on his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni, though clearly to no avail. In a hearing before the Israeli high court that violated several universal principles of a fair trial, a hearing which Jabarin also could not attend because of his confinement to the West Bank, the panel of three judges once again revealed its impotence in the face of absurdly unsupportable “security” concerns. After dismissing everyone from the courtroom except for the Israeli government lawyer and a representative of the Israeli General Security Service (GSS), which presented evidence that was never disclosed to Jabarin or his lawyers, the judges decided to maintain his travel ban. The cryptic ruling of the court mentioned that:

“[T]he fact cannot be ignored that the West Bank is a closed military zone, entry and exit from which require a permit. The right to freedom of movement is examined in view of [Israel’s] special legislation for the area. … The material pointing to Jabarin’s involvement in the activity of terrorist entities is concrete and reliable material. No permission to leave the country is no punishment for his forbidden activities but due to relevant security considerations.”

Minister Verhagen commented in an official press release that “It is disappointing, and disquieting, that [Jabarin] has been denied the opportunity to receive the Geuzen Medal.” Verhagen was publicly critical of the fact that the Israeli court’s judgment of the GSS that Jabarin is or was a member of a terrorist organization was based on evidence to which Jabarin and his legal team had no access.

Although Jabarin was unable to receive the Geuzenpenning award in person, he did participate in the ceremony by way of a video link with Ramallah. In a response to the decision by the Israeli high court to uphold the GSS travel ban, Al-Haq replied through a press release issued on 11 March: “Once again, the Israeli judiciary demonstrates its subservience to the military and security authorities.”

Israel’s treatment of human rights defenders like Jabarin recall Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s protest of “the whole phalanx of draconian laws such as the security legislation” that violated the rights of those who rejected apartheid in South Africa. During the South African apartheid regime, persons considered by the Minister of Law and Order a threat to the security of the state were indefinitely detained in solitary confinement, with no contact with their family or a lawyer. Additionally, persons were placed under travel ban orders arbitrarily and the evidence “justifying” the orders not tested in an open court.

The banning orders in apartheid South Africa bears a disturbing resemblance to the behavior of the GSS and the Israeli high court. In South Africa, banning orders were used to silence persons who resisted apartheid. Individuals could not be quoted during the period of the banning order. They could not attend a “gathering,” which meant an assembly of more than one other person, and could not travel outside the magisterial area to which they were confined. Tutu fiercely objected that such “punishment was inflicted without the evidence allegedly justifying it being made available to the banned person, nor having it scrutinized in a court of law.”

Like Jabarin, and many other Palestinian human rights defenders, South African anti-apartheid leaders and human rights defenders were also banned from traveling abroad for many years during the 1970s and ’80s for speaking out against the government, among them Chief Albert Luthuli, Albertina Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Rev. Beyers Naude.

These arguments aside, in reflecting on whether supposed association with a particular group justifies such draconian measures as a travel banning order, it is important also to be mindful of the fact that the African National Congress, the liberation movement that fought apartheid in South Africa, was for many decades regarded by the West as a “terrorist” organization. At the same time, the West mostly tolerated the South African government’s apartheid policies. However, neither this one-sided attitude by the West, nor fierce oppression by the racist regime in South Africa could end resistance to apartheid.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland. Jeff Handmaker is a human rights lawyer, researcher and university lecturer in human rights at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

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