UN holds consultations following assassination of Sheikh Yassin

Wide view of the Security Council (UN Photo: Sophie Paris)

Following expert-level talks held since the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and seven other civilians in Gaza yesterday, the Security Council is meeting today in New York to discuss the situation in the Middle East. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sablière of France told reporters that the meeting, open to all UN members, will be held at the request of Palestine and the Arab Group of States. Asked why there was no Council statement on the matter, he said consensus was required. Despite “difficult” discussions among experts which began yesterday, “it was not possible to reach a consensus,” he said. In response to another question, the Council President confirmed that the Israeli Foreign Minister was expected to attend the meeting.

Earlier today, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Asma Jahangir, expressed her “deepest concerns over the use of brute force which will only lead to escalating violence.” She urged the Government of Israel not to resort to aerial bombing or ‘targeted shootings’ against civilian populations. She also called on the Israeli forces to immediately end the “unacceptable practice” so as to comply with international human rights standards. The Special Rapporteur emphasized that the right to life and security of the person allows for no derogation, and must be applied “with no exception in all circumstances, including times of emergency, internal unrest or in the context of the fight against terrorism.”

At a press briefing in Geneva, José-Luis Díaz of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, drew attention to the statement of Bertrand Ramcharan, Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, voicing deep concern over Israel’s continued use of assassination in the occupied Palestinian territories following the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Ramcharan stressed that “using targeted killings raises serious questions of legality and proportionality and is likely to make more difficult efforts to move towards peace, as well as risking further undermining respect for human rights of Palestinians and Israelis”.

Speaking at the same press briefing, Christiane Berthiaume of the World Food Programme reported disruptions in WFP’s ability to deliver food to Palestine refugees in the wake of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin and the ensuing three days of mourning. Things were slowly getting back to normal now although the situation remained tense. WFP responds to the needs of 340,000 people in the West Bank and 15,000 people in Gaza.

Díaz announced that the 60th session of the Commission on Human Rights (15 March to 23 April 2004) acted today on a draft decision submitted to it yesterday by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The resolution would call for a “special sitting” on an urgent basis of the Commission to consider the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory resulting from the assassination of Sheikh Yassin.

In the afternoon, the Commission on Human Rights decided by a roll-call vote to hold the special sitting on Wednesday, March 24, from 10 am to 1 pm.

The decision was adopted by a vote of 34 in favour and 3 opposed, with 14 abstentions. Voting against the proposal were the United States, Eritrea, and Australia. Among the abstaining countries were members of the European Union. A Representative of Ireland, speaking on behalf of the EU, said the Union condemned the assassination, but the Commission was shortly to take up its agenda item on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, and that would be the appropriate time to consider the issue.

Speaking at the meeting, Naela Gabr, the Egyptian representative said that Egypt was the first country that had sought peace in the Middle East. It believed that peace was the only choice for the security of the region. “The assassination of Sheikh Yassin was an assassination of peace”, the representative said. “The peace process had been endangered by the incident, and the situation would lead to further conflict. Egypt had condemned the assassination and supported the holding of a special session.” Richard S. Williamson, the US representative said there was no doubt regarding Israel’s right to self-defense, but the US Government was “troubled” about this event, “since it had caused violence in Gaza.” However, the United States opposed the resolution. Williamson claimed that “politicization” of the Commission’s work discredited the Commission, and unfairly discriminated against one member, namely Israel. Williamson said that it was counterproductive political grandstanding that would not contribute one iota to the fragile peace process in the Middle East, nor advance the responsibilities of the Commission.

Speaking on behalf of China, Sha Zukang said that historical events often bore striking similarities. Two years ago, during the fifty-eighth session, held against a background of violence in the Middle East, the Commission had decided to conduct a special sitting on the topic of the Middle East, and the United States had voted against the proposal. Two years later, the Commission was discussing the same problems. “The most basic human right, that to life, could be taken away at any moment by a bullet, and the event of the 22 March had further aggravated the situation in the Middle East. There was an ever-growing need to have a special session on this issue.”

Yaakov Levy, the Israeli representative said that if the Commission voted to hold the special sitting, it would be the first time in the history of the United Nations that “a session was dedicated to lauding, supporting, and glorifying a major leader of a terrorist organization”. According to Levy, “the bias and distorted standards manifested in the Commission year after year and in an increasing manner since the beginning of its deliberations last Friday had once again been expressed.” Israel strongly urged all to vote against the holding of such a biased special sitting that only served as another occasion for “distorted standards, wild accusations, and inflammatory speech, and not to lend their voices and hands to further reducing and degrading the credibility of the Commission and the United Nations as a whole.”

Nabil Ramlawi, the Palestinian representative said that what had happened yesterday was a flagrant violation of human rights. “The Commission had been condemning this sort of thing for the last 35 years. Israeli violations of human rights were not the aim of the sitting — it was known that Israel did not abide by international norms and the resolutions of the Security Council.” Ramlawi said that the Commission had to look at Israel’s policy of assassination. “The Commission, which was established under international law, had the right to examine the situation in the region.”

Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Mary Whelan said in an explanation of the vote before the vote that the Council of the European Union had condemned the extrajudicial killing of Sheikh Yassin and seven others yesterday. “Not only were extrajudicial killings outside the law, they undermined international law, which was a key component of the fight against terrorism.” According to Whelan, the European Union had also repeatedly condemned the terrorist actions of Hamas. Whelan said that the Commission was shortly to take up its consideration of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and that would be the appropriate time for the Commission to consider this issue. Moreover, extrajudicial killings had long been a subject of the Commission’s consideration. Those EU members that were also members of the Commission would therefore abstain from the vote in light of these considerations. Vladimir Parshikov, the Russian representative, in explanation of the vote after the vote, said Russia had voted in favour of the special session based on the consideration that the meeting would be devoted to the situation in the Middle East, which had significantly worsened after the death of Sheikh Yassin. “The prospects of peace had been considerably worsened by his assassination.”

Commission Chairperson Mike Smith announced that the special sitting would be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 24 March.

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