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May 03, 2015
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Current Concerns  >  2006  >  No 7, 2006  >  The Human Rights Council Meets Again Because the Security Council Failed [printversion]

The Human Rights Council Meets Again Because the Security Council Failed

Interview with Prof. Dr. iur. et phil. Alfred de Zayas, Geneva*

Current Concerns: Why is the UN once again focusing on Israel?

Prof. Alfred de Zayas: The UN has a continuing responsibility for Palestine, which used to be a British mandate, and which was partitioned by UN Resolution in 1947. Israel emerged out of terrorism against the indigenous Palestinian population, against the British, and even against the UN peacekeepers (remember that Count Folke Bernadotte was killed by Israeli terrorists in 1948 and that this led to a famous case in the International Court of Justice, which in 1949 condemned Israel). Bearing in mind that UN action led to the creation of the State of Israel, the UN cannot wash its hands of the consequences of its decisions in 1947 and 1948.

Now, pursuant to the UN Charter all peoples have the right to self determination, a right that is enshrined in article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This right has been confirmed and strengthened in countless Resolutions of the UN General Assembly, for instance Resolution 194 (III) of 1948, in which the right to the homeland of the Palestinians was recognized, including their right of the Palestinian refugees and expellees to return to their homes and their right to restitution and compensation. 58 years have elapsed since that resolution, which was followed by hundreds of others, and yet Israel has defied the United Nations, the international community, and flouted all these resolutions with complete impunity.

Q: What ought to happen now?

A: In the face of threats to the peace and breaches of the peace, the UN Security Council has a responsibility to take action under articles 39, 41 and 42 of the UN Charter. Indeed, when serious breaches of international law and gross violations of UN resolutions occur, the UN Security Council usually meets and adopts appropriate resolutions. Depending on the gravity of the violations, the normal course of action would be the imposition of sanctions. But every attempt to impose sanctions on Israel has been blocked by the veto of the United States, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. While other States have been subjected to economic and even to military sanctions, Israel remains privileged in the international scene. This must change.

Q. Has Israel breached only GA Resolutions, or also SC resolutions?

A: As I said, the US has systematically prevented the SC from adopting resolutions against Israel. On a few occasions, however, the US has let resolutions through, for example Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied Palestinian territories. 39 years later Israel not only continues to occupy these territories and has built countless settlements on Palestinian land, but has effectively annexed part of these territories by building a Wall through the Palestinian territories. Every attempt to impose sanctions on Israel because of this gross violation of Resolution 242 has been blocked by the US veto. On 19 April 2002, after the massacres in Jenin, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1405 calling for a fact-finding mission to be sent to Jenin. The members of the mission were chosen, they assembled in Geneva and were ready to go when Israel refused them entry. After much negotiation, Secretary General Kofi Annan eventually gave up, and no fact-finding mission was ever sent to Israel. In the light of this gross defiance of the Security Council, a resolution was introduced to condemn Israel. This resolution, of course, was vetoed by the United States.

Q: What action should the UN adopt concerning the massacre at Beit Hanoun?

A: In principle this grave new violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 by Israel is a matter for the UN Security Council. Had it been any other State, there would have been a condemnation and probably sanctions. The Security Council did discuss the matter, an appropriate resolution was tabled, with, as expected, was vetoed by John Bolton.

It is clear to everyone that because of this systematic undermining of the Security Council by the United States, its crucial responsibilities for peacekeeping cannot be exercised. This is why other UN organs have to address the issue. Indeed, had the Security Council acted concerning Beit Hanoun, it would not have been necessary for the Human Rights Council to be assembled once again in special session in Geneva. This session is an expression of the international frustration at the impasse in the Security Council and a loud protest against the continued injustices committed against the Palestinian people, who are entitled to live in peace and self-determination.

Q: Was the resolution adopted one-sidedly, as claimed by some representatives of the European Union?

A: As you know, the vote was adopted by 32 in favour, 6 abstentions and 8 against. While France abstained, other members of the EU voted against it, claiming that it was one-sided. This is highly regrettable, because consensus would have been better in the light of the grave violations of international law by Israel The resolution calls for a fact-finding mission, and is entirely justified. If the pro-Israeli representatives of the European Union also wanted to condemn Hamas because of Israeli victims in this conflict, they could have submitted their own draft resolution for discussion and eventual adoption by the Council. Obviously every victim of violence is one too many, whether Israeli or Palestinian. But it is imperative to keep the conflict in Gaza in historical perspective. Here the oppressor is Israel and the oppressed are the Palestinians. Oppressed peoples have the right, recognized in international law, to self-determination and to liberate themselves from oppression. By voting against the resolution, EU member states have implicitly acquiesced to very serious crimes and have lost whatever credibility they pretended to have.

Q: How do you rate the American criticism that the Human Rights Council is an anti-Israeli institution?

This is the typical name-calling that my government likes to engage in. It is cynical and intellectually dishonest. The Human Rights Council does not deal only with Israel, and it has a huge agenda, focusing on torture, disappeared persons, child soldiers, human trafficking, internally displaced persons, terrorism, poverty-reduction, the millennium development goals, etc. The Council cannot do everything. But if the Security Council fails to act with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be inconceivable for the Human Rights Council to remain silent in the light of the gross and systematic violation of the human rights of the Palestinians.

Q: Could the Resolution of the Human Rights Council have been improved?

A: Yes, of course. The resolution has no teeth. The Resolution missed an opportunity to call on the international community to impose a complete arms embargo on Israel, bearing in mind that every Palestinian child killed in Gaza and in the Occupied Territories is killed with European or American ammunition and technology. The Resolution could also have referred the matter to the General Assembly with the specific request to start proceedings to suspend Israel from membership in the organization, pursuant to article 6 of the UN Charter. The General Assembly should have been urged to deny accreditation to the Israeli representatives, as was done with respect to the representatives of the Apartheid government of South Africa. The General Assembly should have been urged to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the continued occupation of Palestine by Israel.

Q: Isn’t that going too far?

A: Either we take international law seriously, or we do not. Either we use the existing mechanisms of redress, or we do not. Of course, I am realistic enough to know that the armament-industry in the European Union and the United States makes too much money in this conflict, as they do in every war. Every airplane, helicopter, tank, armored vehicle means a profit for someone. Even the bulldozers used in destroying Palestinian houses can be seen from the economic side. Caterpillar makes money on war and occupation. In this context we desperately need information. The media has failed to inform the European and the American public about the crimes being committed against the Palestinians. Public opinion has not been properly mobilized. In democratic countries like the US, UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, etc. the citizens could demand from their democratically elected representatives that they impose embargos on Israel. A modest start would be if citizens would henceforth refuse to buy Israeli products, if they would write to the COOP, Migros, Denner, etc. and demanded that no more Israeli products be sold in their stores. Such a boycott would send the right message. Maybe the Israel government would finally understand that Israel, like every other nation on earth, must respect international law and human rights.

Q: What else could be done?

A: The international community should make it clear to Israel that although no one disputes its right of existence, everyone demands that it withdraw to its UN-determined borders, that it respect the Resolutions of the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, that it take concrete steps to implement Security Council Resolution 242 and the ruling of the International Court of Justice of 9 July 2004.

Today many international lawyers talk about the need for humanitarian intervention in many parts of the world. The situation in Palestine cries out for such humanitarian intervention.

* Alfred de Zayas, American lawyer and historian, retired senior jurist with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee. Visiting professor of law at universities in North America and Europe (Geneva, Chicago, Vancouver, Trier, Alcala de Henares, Tunis), author of „Nemesis at Potsdam“ (Routledge), „A Terrible Revenge“ (Palgrave/Macmillan). President of P.E.N. International, Centre Suisse romande.