By Navi Pillay, The Huffington Post – 30 Sept 2009
Yesterday, in Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Council had a very important discussion about two reports it received on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: the report of the independent fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict, led by Justice Goldstone, and my own report, also requested by the Council, on human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
These two reports complement other reports about Gaza, including those by 10 independent UN experts and several other investigations by both inter-governmental entities and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Taken together, these reports present a comprehensive and remarkably consistent picture of what happened in Gaza.
My own report notes that significant prima facie evidence indicated the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as gross human rights violations, by both Israel and Hamas during the military operations that were carried out in Gaza from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009.
This situation was exacerbated by the blockade that the population of Gaza endured in the months prior to these military operations. It has continued ever since, and is now entering its third year. As a result conditions on the ground continue to deteriorate.
In particular, the Gaza population’s freedom of movement is denied. A wall runs along all land borders with Israel and Egypt. At sea, Israeli gunboats prevent Palestinian boats from sailing more than three nautical miles from the coastline. With very few exceptions, Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants are trapped. They cannot exit the 45 km-long Strip.
In addition to the curtailment of Gazans’ freedom of movement, heavy import restrictions and near total prohibition of exports have severely impaired the realization of a wide range of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as many civil and political rights, of the Gaza population. Restrictions include the unacceptable curtailment of Gazans’ right to work, their right to access water, food, adequate housing and education, as well as their entitlement to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
Funds to remedy the situation are available. However, the blockade is preventing the disbursement of the nearly five billion dollars pledged by donors at Sharm el Sheikh in March 2009 for recovery and reconstruction efforts in Gaza.
The blockade, and its effect of collective punishment, must stop. Causing such hardships for the civilian population cannot possibly serve the interests of peace and security in the region.
I recommend in my report that all allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights violations during the Gaza military operations and their aftermath — whether through attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Gaza or indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel by Hamas or other armed Palestinian groups — must be thoroughly investigated by credible, independent and transparent accountability mechanisms, respectful of international standards of due process. Equally crucial is upholding the right of victims to receive compensation.
The recommendations of Justice Goldstone’s fact-finding mission should be followed up by the Human Rights Council in order to fulfill its responsibility to promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. The interest of all victims and respect for international law must be the central focus of the Council’s action. This body’s impartiality and an even-handed approach on the part of the international community as a whole, are indispensable to help prevent future human rights violations and to establish a solid base for peace and security.
Last July, the Government of Israel issued a report called The Operation in Gaza 27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009: Factual and Legal Aspects. It states that the Israel Defense Forces were conducting at that time “comprehensive field and criminal investigations into allegations regarding the conduct of its forces during the Operation.”
I urge the Israeli Government to ensure that any investigation be conducted in a credible and independent manner and in conformity with all relevant international standards.
My report also documents the situation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem where international calls for a stop to settlements have so far not been heeded. Violent acts by settlers against Palestinians continue, coupled with a near total impunity for such acts.
As pointed out in my report, the existence of the settlements represents severe obstacles for freedom of movement in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These include checkpoints, road blocks and segregated roads, the vast majority of which are located far away from the Green Line. And so is the Wall which extends far into the West Bank. In turn, these obstacles undermine the enjoyment of other human rights, such as the right to education, access to health and the freedom to worship. The settlement expansion policy also spawns the rising number of forced evictions and demolitions of homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In this sense, settlements are not only illegal under international humanitarian law, but also generate violations of international human rights law.
Since April, the dire situation of thousands of detainees and prisoners has not improved. Israel currently holds approximately 8,000 Palestinians in detention under conditions that contravene international human rights and humanitarian law. In Gaza, the de facto administration holds an estimated one hundred political detainees in unknown locations which are off-limits to both the families of the detainees and to their legal counsel. The Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been held incommunicado in an undisclosed location for more than three years, and not even the International Committee of the Red Cross has been given access to him. Allegations of torture and degrading treatment of detainees held in centers under the control of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel all need to be investigated.
The widespread recourse by all parties to military justice systems, which do not meet international standards of due process, is a matter of grave concern.
I lend my full support to Justice Goldstone’s report and its recommendations. I fully agree with him that the prevailing impunity for human rights violations in the Middle East conflict must end.
Such impunity encourages and helps perpetuate human rights abuses. Bringing perpetrators to account is not only necessary to ensure justice and protection to the affected populations, but also to enhance prospects of peace in the region. All parties to the conflict, as well as the international community, should extend full support and cooperation to accountability efforts.
It is essential that the international community anchors its efforts to broker a durable political solution in international law, including the important 9 July 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the Wall being built by Israel.
It should be clear by now that there can be no lasting peace without accountability for human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law.
Navi Pillay is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights