“UN must prosecute Israel for war crimes,” says Bloody Sunday lawyer

Michael Mansfield at a podium

Michael Mansfield addressing the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. 

David Vilaplana Russell Tribunal on Palestine

Israel was the focus of discussions by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) earlier this month. Israel is obliged to submit a report to the Geneva-based committee on how it has implemented the rights enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) every two years.

However, Israel waited until this year to submit a series of reports that were formally due in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the convention. ICERD states that that any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice.

ICERD defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life” (see International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination).

Israel’s presented its last three bi-annual reports in one 183-page volume (see Reports submitted by States parties under article 9 of the Convention” 17 January 2011).

In addition, Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations submitted shadow reports to inform the committee about the situation, and a designated UN rapporteur for Israel identified a list of themes as guidance for the discussions. After examination of all the reports, the committee will write its concerns and recommendations to Israel in its “concluding observations.”

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine submitted a shadow report about apartheid in Israel in January 2012, and delegated Michael Mansfield — one of its jurors — to address the committee. Mansfield is a well-known, respected attorney from the United Kingdom and is the president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof interviewed Mansfield in Geneva.

Adri Nieuwhof: Can you please introduce yourself and maybe give some examples of successes in your work that are close to your heart?

Michael Mansfield: I like to describe myself as an angry young man but now I am an angry old man. It has been the driving force against manifestations of injustice within the UK. To speak for the victims of injustice, wrongly accused people in the criminal court and families that suffered from terrible events — for example the events on Bloody Sunday [30 January 1972, when the British army shot at unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders in Northern Ireland].

The Brits have been instrumental in some of the most terrible events. Israel has inherited the military court system and administrative detention from the Brits. Providing a voice is the thing I do best, inside and outside courts. Now it is more outside the courts.

I am conscious of the fact that there a number of successes people think I would chose. I choose my fighting on behalf of the Lawrence family in relation to a racist murder. The representation of the miners that were unjustly attacked by the police during the mines strike [at Orgreave, Sheffield in 1984]. Representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes who was shot by the police in the London underground. Representing the relatives of the victims of a pleasure ship that went down on the Thames. They fought to get safety regulations changes.

The most satisfying success, because I was there to see the result, was in 2010 — just after the election of [UK Prime Minister] David Cameron — when he issued after six years of waiting the Saville report on Bloody Sunday and the Anglo-Irish history. It said that the British troops that killed 14 people committed murder. It was the joy of relief on the faces of the families that their family members were not terrorists. Thousands of people were in Derry [Northern Ireland] to be present at the presentation of the report. The killing took place in 1972. The people were totally vilified, tainted with the same brush as the Irish Republican Army, which they were not. It was the British that were hostile. The inquiry was opposed. The real wonder of the moment was that it was a conservative prime minister [Cameron] who said for the first time, “I am sorry.” And it was a conservative prime minister [Ted Heath] who was in power on Bloody Sunday.

AN: The Russell Tribunal on Palestine presented a shadow report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. How do you assess Israel’s report on its actions to eliminate racial discrimination?

MM: I quickly skimmed through it. The author of our shadow report read Israel’s report in detail. I base my response on the findings of the author of our shadow report. Israel is trying to trick the organizations by quantity. The delegate will read it in the meeting and nobody can keep up. They flood the arena with verbiage. Let’s take apartheid — there is only one paragraph devoted to Article 3 of the convention [ICERD] on apartheid [which says that] there is no separation in Israel. It is a blatant disregard of the truth. There are pages and pages on racism making it appear as if they don’t accept racism. A case may be taken to court but the system of apartheid is not dealt with in the report.

AN: Did you present the findings of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine shadow report in the meeting of the committee?

MM: I had five minutes for my presentation. I decided to deal with one issue that was not mentioned in the report. The committee members read the shadow report and there is no need to repeat what is written. I asked the committee, why are we here? You — the committee — know full well all the violations that Israel has committed that amount to apartheid. You know from the last session that they [Israel] refuse to provide information about your questions using the spurious argument that the [occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip] is outside its borders. You make recommendations and you aim at making changes. Yes, there is change, it got worse. This session is critical for the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. It is critical for you as a committee to take all actions you can. It is about actions, not words.

This is what you can do: (1) CERD has to come up with a definitive, unequivocal finding of apartheid. (2) Lest the committee is concerned that this may not be enough, they can request the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to request an advisory opinion to the International Court of Justice. (3) The committee can ask UNGA to reconstitute the Committee against Apartheid with its first task to examine Israel and Palestine with the prospect of identifying acts of apartheid perpetrated. No country can veto suggestion 2 and 3. (4) An approach is made to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. You then ask the [UN] Security Council to refer the case to the ICC. That is where a veto comes in. (5) The UN have to reconsider the membership of Israel. Why should Israel continue to be a member? They show no respect, they have broken more resolutions than any other state.

AN: How did the committee respond to your presentation?

MM: They were very responsive. There were a large number of [non-governmental organizations] at the meeting. Their contributions were of a very high level. It provoked a large number of questions that were informative and telling.

There were about 15 questions of committee members on how does the situation compare to South Africa, and about the Bedouins in the Negev [Naqab].

AN: Many people, including Palestine solidarity activists feel that UN resolutions do not lead to any improvement towards the situation of the Palestinian people. What is your advice?

MM: It is discouraging. Activists have to appreciate that those who are not on the front lines also find it discouraging. The two have to work together to isolate Israel. The activists on the front line and the people working behind the front line — it can lead to results. For example, UNESCO [the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] was courageous enough to accredit Palestine, no matter the threats. Israel must feel that as a defeat. It has taken a long time.

In South Africa it also took a long time. In Ireland, the struggle for some kind of identity took over a hundred years. They want those on the front line and a bit behind it to be overcome with fatigue and to give in. But the principles are too important. We don’t give up. Every violation by Israel is another brick in the wall. We have now come to a situation — unless you are a Zionist or close to Zionists — where people have lost faith that Israel is a democratic and reasonable state. It needs pressure from all sides.

AN: Will you continue to be involved in defending the rights of the Palestinian people?

MM: Having been to Palestine twice, I do think about the people I left behind. I feel uneasy. I live in situation where I am relatively secure. And I have the possibility to enjoy things they don’t have, it does not need to be materialistic. I will not give in until I don’t feel uncomfortable anymore. I cannot turn my back to it.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.