UN Rapporteur compares Israel to Apartheid South Africa

John Dugard

The UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, John Dugard, has issued a harshly critical report on Israel’s human rights record in regards to its treatment of the Palestinians in occupied Palestine. “The international community, speaking through the United Nations, has identified three regimes as inimical to human rights - foreign occupation, apartheid and colonialism,” Dugard says. In a report posted on the UN Human Rights Council’s website, due to be tabled this week, the South African law professor accuses Israeli regime of all three. Below follows an excerpt of the report.


The international community, speaking through the United Nations, has identified three regimes as inimical to human rights - colonialism, apartheid and foreign occupation. Numerous resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations testify to this. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem contains elements of all three of these regimes, which is what makes the Occupied Palestinian Territory of special concern to the international community.

That the OPT is occupied by Israel and governed by the rules belonging to the special legal regime of occupation cannot be disputed. The International Court of Justice confirmed this in respect of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in its 2004 Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (see, ICJ Reports, p. 136, paragraph 78), and held that the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 1949, was applicable to this Territory (ibid., para. 101). The Security Council, General Assembly and States Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention have declared that this Convention is applicable to the entire OPT (ibid., paras. 96-99). Moreover, it is not possible to seriously argue, as Israel has attempted to do, that Israel has ceased to occupy Gaza since August 2005, when it withdrew its settlers and the Israel Defense Forces from Gaza. Even before the commencement of “Operation Summer Rains”, following the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit on 25 June 2006, Israel was able to exercise effective control over the Territory by reason of its control of Gaza’s external borders, air space and sea space. Since that date it has exercised its military authority within Gaza by military incursions and shelling, in circumstances which clearly establish occupation.

Today there are over 460,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Moreover, Israel has appropriated agricultural land and water resources in the West Bank for its own use. This aspect of Israel’s exploitation of the West Bank appears to be a form of colonialism of the kind declared to be a denial of fundamental human rights and contrary to the Charter of the United Nations as recalled in the General Assembly’s Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples of 1960 (Resolution 1514 XV).

Israel’s practices and policies in the OPT are frequently likened to those of apartheid South Africa (see, for example, Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid (2006)). On the face of it, occupation and apartheid are two very different regimes. Occupation is not intended to be a long-term oppressive regime but an interim measure that maintains law and order in a territory following an armed conflict and pending a peace settlement.

Apartheid is a system of institutionalized racial discrimination that the white minority in South Africa employed to maintain power over the black majority. It was characterized by the denial of political rights to blacks, the fragmentation of the country into white areas and black areas (called Bantustans) and by the imposition on blacks of restrictive measures designed to achieve white superiority, racial separation and white security. Freedom of movement was restricted by the “pass system” which sought to restrict the entry of blacks into the cities. Apartheid was enforced by a brutal security apparatus in which torture played a significant role. Although the two regimes are different, Israel’s laws and practices in the OPT certainly resemble aspects of apartheid, as shown in paragraphs 49-50 above, and probably fall within the scope of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Colonialism and apartheid are contrary to international law. Occupation is a lawful regime, tolerated by the international community but not approved. Indeed over the past three decades it has, in the words of the Israeli scholar Eyal Benvenisti, “acquired a pejorative connotation”. What are the legal consequences of a regime of occupation that has continued for nearly 40 years? Clearly none of the obligations imposed on the occupying Power are reduced as a result of such a prolonged occupation. But what are the legal consequences when such a regime has acquired some of the characteristics of colonialism and apartheid? Does it continue to be a lawful regime? Or does it cease to be a lawful regime, particularly in respect of “measures aimed at the occupants’ own interests”? And if this is the position, what are the legal consequences for the occupied people, the occupying Power and third States? Should questions of this kind not be addressed to the International Court of Justice for a further advisory opinion? It is true that the 2004 Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory has not had the desired effect of compelling the United Nations to take firmer action against the construction of the Wall. On the other hand, it must be remembered that the United Nations requested four advisory opinions from the International Court of Justice to guide it in its approach to South Africa’s occupation of South-West Africa/Namibia. In these circumstances a request for another advisory opinion warrants serious consideration.


The Occupied Palestinian Territory is of special importance to the future of human rights in the world. Human rights in Palestine have been on the agenda of the United Nations for 60 years; and more particularly for the past 40 years since the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. For years the occupation of Palestine and apartheid in South Africa vied for attention from the international community. In 1994, apartheid came to an end and Palestine became the only developing country in the world under the subjugation of a Western-affiliated regime. Herein lies its significance to the future of human rights. There are other regimes, particularly in the developing world, that suppress human rights, but there is no other case of a Western-affiliated regime that denies self-determination and human rights to a developing people and that has done so for so long. This explains why the OPT has become a test for the West, a test by which its commitment to human rights is to be judged. If the West fails this test, it can hardly expect the developing world to address human rights violations seriously in its own countries, and the West appears to be failing this test.

The EU pays conscience money to the Palestinian people through the Temporary International Mechanism but nevertheless joins the United States and other Western countries, such as Australia and Canada, in failing to put pressure on Israel to accept Palestinian self-determination and to discontinue its violations of human rights.

The Quartet, comprising the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and the Russian Federation, is a party to this failure. If the West, which has hitherto led the promotion of human rights throughout the world, cannot demonstrate a real commitment to the human rights of the Palestinian people, the international human rights movement, which can claim to be the greatest achievement of the international community of the past 60 years, will be endangered and placed in jeopardy.

To download the full report (PDF) click here.

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