24th Mar 2018


Is international law a universal right or a select privilege?

  • "The EU actively discourages Palestinians from seeking justice through the International Criminal Court" (Photo: zoriah)

Last Tuesday, EU foreign ministers closed their eyes to the on-going Palestinian civilian casualties and mass-destruction in the Gaza Strip.

On that day they declared their shameful position on the on-going round of hostilities in the occupied Gaza Strip.

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In flagrant disregard for Palestinian human suffering, the EU refused to recognise the simple fact that Israel is killing Palestinian civilians.

Whilst the EU “strongly condemn[ed] the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and militant groups in the Gaza Strip”, the ministers stripped the Palestinian population of any hope that their horrendous situation would be recognised and condemned at the European level.

Furthermore, the EU, which prides itself on its adherence to the rule of law and in its historic role in putting war criminals behind bars, revealed its true position: international law is not a right, it is a privilege, and one that is not afforded to the Palestinian people.

At the UN Human Rights Council Special Session last Wednesday, the EU hammered home its position.

There was no identification of the then 500-plus victims of “Operation Protective Edge” as Palestinians. There was no reference to Israel’s intentional targeting of Palestinian civilians. While urging Israel to carry out its attacks in line with international humanitarian law, the EU emphasised Israel’s “right to defend itself”, an assertion that is not only legally flawed but also emboldens Israel in its ongoing violations of international law.

Over the past weeks, Palestinian human rights organisations have struggled to keep up with the growing number of killed and injured and the increasing destroyed or damaged buildings. But this isn’t a war about numbers. Operation Protective Edge, illustrative of Israel’s 47-year long occupation of the Palestinian Territory, is about humans.

While the numbers are acknowledged, what the international community all too often fails to recognise is that those figures correspond to individual lives, all of which have been subject to a seven-year-long economically-devastating illegal closure. All of which have been witness to at least three wars, each of which has waged death and destruction unimaginable to most of the outside world.

On 9 July Tamir Khaled Taher al Astal, 28, a resident of Khan Yunis governorate in the Gaza Strip, arrived at the Waqt al Marah resort on the Al Qarara beach, where he met relatives and friends. As the group watched the News, in anticipation of the World Cup match, the Israeli military bombed the beach resort. While the world anticipated the Netherlands-Argentina match, nine Palestinian civilians aged between 15 and 28 lost their lives. Tamir, though injured, survived - only to discover that three of his relatives had been killed and two more injured.

On 10 July Yasser Mahmoud Lutfi al Haj, 25, a resident of Khan Yunis refugee camp, left his home to see his friends. Upon hearing the sound of Israeli aircrafts above, he returned to his house. When Yasser was approximately 200 metres from his home, he heard the sound of a loud explosion. Six members of his family, including his mother, his father and four of his siblings were killed by an Israeli aerial attack.

These life-shattering stories are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Nonetheless, the EU, with which Israel shares a particularly close relationship, has failed to take meaningful action and refused to condemn Israel’s crimes. Not a single EU state voted in favour of Wednesday’s Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry to be sent to investigate violations of international law in the Gaza Strip.

Such a move invokes a certain feeling of déjà-vu – a 2009 fact-finding mission initiated by the Human Rights Council to investigate violations of international law committed during “Operation Cast Lead” also failed to receive support from a single EU member state, as did the subsequent recommendations and implementation of the report.

But the EU does not only fail to support UN responses to Israel’s violations, in fact, it actively discourages the Palestinians from seeking justice through the International Criminal Court. Whereas the EU demands that all its member states ratify the Rome Statute of the Court and supports the notion of universal jurisdiction, the EU is yet again hypocritical when it comes to Palestinians.

According to the EU, Palestinians are effectively not allowed to enjoy justice. Instead, the EU views Palestinians as a burdening factor that needs to be addressed in the context of the Middle East Peace Process only.

All of this begs the question: Is the EU truly committed to encouraging compliance with international law?

The EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy and the EU Guidelines on the Promotion of Compliance with International Humanitarian Law would certainly suggest so. As would recent EU sanctions against those responsible for human rights violations in Ukraine. Perhaps then, the EU’s commitment to international law exists, but European political will staunchly refuses to extend its reach to Israel.

The writer is General Director of Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian non-governmental human rights organization based in Ramallah, Palestine.

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