Urgent: Letter to High Commissioner for Human Rights
I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, to welcome you to the Gaza Strip, on this your first official visit to occupied Palestine.
As members of the international human rights community, and representatives of victims, we look upon the High Commissioner for Human Rights as a figurehead, a protector, and a role-model. In this sense, I hope that your visit and your ctions will offer some hope to the civilian victims of this longstanding occupation. I hope that you will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the besieged civilians of the Gaza Strip, with those living behind the Annexation wall in the West Bank, and with those subject to ethnic cleansing in occupied East Jerusalem. The Palestinian people need to know that we are not forgotten, that our human rights remain valid and worthy of protection, and that the United Nations will work ceaselessly to protect our rights and ensure that those responsible for their violation are held to account.
In this conflict it is civilians who bear the brunt of the Israeli occupation and its policies. Although classified as ‘protected persons’ under international humanitarian law, civilians have been directly targeted on a consistent and systematic basis. It is the Palestinian civilian population who suffer the effects of land confiscation, of settlement activity, of the Annexation wall, and the closure of the Gaza Strip. It is civilians who are subjected to poverty and hunger as a result of illegal policies and acts. These same civilians are then systematically denied their right to an effective remedy should they attempt to agitate for their rights, and for redress.
It is in the Gaza Strip that this policy has become dramatically evident. For more than three and a half years, the entire population of Gaza has been subject to an illegal closure policy. This policy – explicitly enacted as a form of ‘economic warfare’ directed against the civilian population – has cut Gaza off from the rest of Palestine and the outside world, leading to, inter alia, increased poverty, dependency and despair.
Equally, during Israel’s 27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009 offensive on the Gaza Strip it was civilians who were placed in the eye of the storm. 83% of the over 1,400 casualties were civilians, the majority of the 5,300 injured were civilians, and civilian property and infrastructure was extensively targeted and destroyed. Over two years later you can still see the unhealed scars as you travel through Gaza; in violation of Security Council Resolution 1860, Israel has failed to open the crossings, effectively preventing necessary recovery and reconstruction.
No one has been held responsible for these war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Indeed, it is precisely this lack of accountability which cuts to the core of the reality in the occupied Palestinian territory today. Despite the extensive documentation of systematic violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and the publicity this documentation has received, no individual has been held criminally accountable. The international community has not enacted any tangible consequence for these violations, and it is precisely this pervasive impunity which allows the Occupying Power to continue its illegal policies.
Today, this impunity is distinctly manifested via the international community’s reaction to the ongoing collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population: the three and a half year closure. There is a tangible risk that the international community now risks ‘institutionalising’ the closure, thereby becoming complicit in collective punishment. This cannot be allowed to happen. There are no partial or eased violations of international law, as noted by the ICRC: the closure must be lifted in its entirety. The Office of the High Commissioner must do everything in its power to prevent the institutionalisation of the closure, and to bring an end to the collective punishment of Gaza’s civilians.
This veil of impunity is also manifest in the lack of criminal accountability for perpetrators of international crimes, as evidenced by the now protracted ‘Goldstone process’ which has resulted in de facto impunity on all sides. It is over two years since the end of the Israeli offensive, and all sides have emphatically failed to initiate genuine criminal investigations, and if appropriate prosecutions, in accordance with the requirements of international law. Rather than pursue justice, the domestic processes have been characterised by a desire to shield suspects.
We ask that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights work to bring the situation in Israel and the oPt to the attention of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and that a final decision on the Goldstone process be made. Victims cannot be consigned to a judicial limbo as ineffective domestic proceedings are constantly ‘evaluated’.
In light of the evident failure of the domestic processes the international community must now assume its responsibility to investigate and prosecute those suspected of international crimes. The Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, must refer the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory to the International Criminal Court.
The absence of justice has resulted in the dire situation we face today, in the systematic violation of fundamental human rights, and the denial of human dignity. Behind the closed doors of the Gaza Strip, it is our shared humanity that continues to link us to the outside world. We demand that our human rights be respected and protected. We demand that the international community stay silent no longer, that it exerts its influence in the name of fundamental freedoms and justice.
Centre for Human Rights