The UN has once again managed to dumbfound the world: last week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was elected to the organization’s Commission on the Status of Women. In Canada, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel led the parade of outraged politicians – and rightfully so. With its laws circumscribing the rights of its women, Saudi Arabia is in no position to lead a UN organization “dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
The rights of Saudi women are inevitably subordinated to the men in their lives. Among other things, Saudi men have dominant rights in regards to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, women cannot seek higher education, take a job or travel without permission from their male guardian. Read Ensaf Haidar’s biography Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom for a vivid example of how such laws engender hopelessness, depression and fear among the Kingdom’s women. Suffice it to say that Saudi Arabia is not in a position to promote women’s rights or shape global standards on gender equality, as the Commission intends.
“The UN is a horribly inefficient organization, full of incompetence and waste,” said a friend of mine soon after she had spent two years working for a UN organization in the Middle East. “But look around,” she continued, “It’s only a reflection of the world itself.” To her point, we can hardly expect the UN to create efficiency and logic out of the morass of conflict and dysfunction that is our world.
One must think of the UN as being a bit like a condominium association. We’re all thrown together randomly, each with our unique quirks and habits. Some condo owners do their best to contribute: they join the board, attend the meetings, make reasonable recommendations, and listen to the opinions of others. Other condo owners only seem interested in gaming the system: they park in the visitor parking spaces, they default on their association fees, they spurn the association meetings, but then criticize every decision that is taken. Over time, we grow fond of some neighbours, and wary of others.
But in the UN, who is who? As Canadians, we rightly ridicule the election of Saudi Arabia to a commission for women. But somehow we find it perfectly natural that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council also happen to be the five largest international arms exporters. Can’t the Saudis and other nations legitimately ridicule the West for this hypocrisy, given that the Security Council’s mandate is to maintain peace?
In June 2016, Israel was elected to chair the UN’s Legal Committee, a body mandated to develop and codify international law. Yet Israel is repeatedly censured for its ongoing violations international law, as recently demonstrated by the Security Council’s December vote condemning Israel’s illegal settlements. In fact, Israel is a repeat offender in terms of international law and human rights as a 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice demonstrated. Not surprisingly, this particular UN decision was considered shocking in many Middle Eastern countries at the time. Yet neither Michelle Rempel nor any of the Liberals protested that decision. So clearly Canadians’ outrage on these issues is selective.
Although the vote for the UN Commission on the Status of Women was done by secret ballot, some astute observers were able to conclusively determine that several Western European nations must have supported Saudi Arabia’s bid for a seat on the Commission. Yet this should come as no surprise either: votes and favours are regularly traded among UN member states as each plays the system to its own purpose. Indeed, even the Harper government played the game during its futile attempt to win a seat on the Security Council in 2010.
Like our struggling condo association, there are very few model citizens at the UN. And sadly, Canada is not one of them. To cite a few depressing examples, just last October, Canadajoined a minority at the UN which voted against a mechanism to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons. Before that, the Harper government declined to sign the UN-sponsored Arms Trade Treaty, becoming the only one of its G7 and NATO allies to refuse to do so.
If Canadians and other Westerners really want the UN to stop making decisions which defy all logic, then they’ve got to demand that their own governments become more exemplary UN members. The only way to end the dysfunction in the UN is for Western nations to first stop gaming the system to their own advantage. Otherwise, the UN is condemned to function no better than our hopeless condo association.
In just a few weeks, the world will witness a remarkable and sobering milestone. By June, 2017, Israel will have been a military occupying power in the Palestinian territories for 50 years. Given the West’s blasé attitude, you might think this anniversary were inconsequential, but for millions in the Middle East, their hope and future depend on a shift from the status quo.
Some Canadians take a fatalistic attitude to the occupation and associated strife, making comments like, “the conflict will never end,” or, “they’ve been fighting for thousands of years” – neither of which is true. But regardless of the myths and the cynicism, 50 years of military occupation is far too long, and international players – including Canada – need to get serious about bringing it to an end. This crippling standoff between Israelis and Palestinians represents a ongoing failure in international diplomacy, and remains a source of ongoing strife in the broader Middle East.
Some Israelis have suggested that this Palestinian territory – the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza – is theirs, won through a war with Jordan and Egypt in 1967. But the UN Charter and international law do not recognize the acquisition of territory by force, and the land was never Jordan’s nor Egypt’s to “lose.”
Israel’s military occupation is not benign, and it has been widely condemned by legal experts. It comes with soldiers, guns, walls, checkpoints, sniper towers, arrests, searches, land confiscations, house demolitions and more. Every day, Palestinian civilians live with its reality: waiting at checkpoints to get to work; tolerating humiliating searches; farmers blocked from accessing their olive groves; patients blocked from getting treatment at health facilities; families fearing the loss of their homes. After 50 years, we should not be surprised when some of them lose hope and turn to violence to vent their frustration.
The occupation is also destructive for Israel. One book released by the Israeli Political Science Association concludes that Israel’s occupation has severely undermined core societal values and institutions. The authors argue that suspicion and distrust within the occupying Israeli society transform themselves into contempt and humiliation of the occupied Palestinians. These changes, the book argues, cause the fragmentation of Israel’s moral texture. Human rights journalist Gideon Levy is more blunt: “[Israel] is a state whose sense of direction has been lost, its ability to distinguish good from evil impaired.”
There is no reason the Palestinians shouldn’t have their own state. It was the intent of the UN Partition Plan of 1947, and the right to self-determination of all peoples is enshrined in international law. For years, the Palestinians have satisfied the three criteria normally set out for peoples demanding the right to self-determine. First, the Palestinians exist as a distinct people with a distinct identity. Next, the borders of the Palestinian state are clear, and would mirror that of the 1947 armistice (Green) line. Finally, the Palestinians have a recognized government, the Palestinian Authority, established via the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The vast majority of the world is ready to welcome Palestine as a member of the UN community of nations. In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted 138-9 in support of “Non-MemberObserverState” for Palestine. There is no reason that the cultural, economic and societal aspirations of the Palestinians should continue to be held hostage to an intrusive and brutal Israeli occupation.
It is true that there would be logistical challenges to the establishment of a free Palestine today. Indeed, Israel has worked hard over 50 years to create “facts on the ground” as a deterrent to Palestinian self-determination. Most notably, Israel has illegally moved 600,000 Jewish-Israeli civilians into Palestinian territory, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition against the colonization of occupied land.
- But these and other obstacles could be overcome if the West had the honest desire to do so. The Geneva Initiative of 2003 is one of several independent initiatives between Israeli and Palestinian civilians which demonstrates that a mutually agreeable deal for both Israelis and Palestinians is possible. For much of the world, the Western governments’ lack of resolve on Israel-Palestine makes a mockery of all our talk about human rights.
- Middle powers like Canada may feel like they don’t have much of a role to play, but this is untrue. Both Israelis and Palestinians crave legitimacy, and abhor talk of their human rights abuses. Just as the Security Council condemnation of settlements riled Israel in December, ongoing condemnation of human rights violations by Canada and others would similarly create pressure for an end to the impasse.
- The world would not have tolerated US occupation soldiers in Germany 50 years after World War II. In the same way, the world should not tolerate Israeli soldiers in the West Bank 50 years after the 1967 war. But unless something galvanizes Trudeau, Trump and other Western leaders to action, we may soon observe another sad anniversary of Israel’s ongoing military occupation. If so, Israelis, and especially Palestinian civilians, will continue to pay a heavy price for our indifference.
In my final year of high school in the spring of 1981, headlines in North America chronicled the long decline of Irish Republican hunger striker, Bobby Sands. It was my first introduction to “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland, but I came through that period with a better understanding of the two sides of that conflict.
While many Canadians might not realize it, there is a hunger strike going on today that is just as significant as that of Bobby Sands and the other Irish Republicans in 1981. Led by Marwan Barghouti, hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails are five weeks into a hunger strike. Yet because North American media are ignoring the strike, Canadians are hardly wiser to the plight of the Palestinian prisoners. Unfortunately, any time Israel is involved, it is nearly impossible to get North Americans to address the realities of the situation.
Israel and its Canadian supporters like to suggest that all the Palestinians in Israeli jails are terrorists, and that their prison conditions comply with international standards. But this position is contradicts the facts as reported by independent human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
Israel’s rate of incarceration of Palestinians has remained at astronomical levels for years. Since 1967, through its military occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israelhas jailed more than 800,000 Palestinians – a number constituting as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. At present, there are 6300 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Abusive tactics employed by Israel include torture and ill-treatment, indefinite administrative detention, isolation, and medical neglect – all illegal under international law. Hundreds of Palestinians are detained merely for their political activities, and each year Israel prosecutes about 700 Palestinian children under age 18 in its military courts.
Like Bobby Sands and his fellow Irishmen in the early 1980s, Palestinian hunger strikers have legitimate demands: the most important being visits and access by loved ones. Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that prisoners “accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.” Yet Israel detains and jails Palestinians in facilities located in Israel proper, and not in the Palestinian territories where they lived and were arrested. This is no small matter, as Israel also controls access between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, often making it extremely difficult for family members to visit loved ones in detention.
Of this situation, Magdalena Mughrabi of Amnesty states, “Israel’s ruthless policy of holding Palestinian prisoners arrested in the OccupiedPalestinianTerritories in prisons inside Israel is a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is unlawful and cruel and the consequences for the imprisoned person and their loved ones, who are often deprived from seeing them for months, and at times for years on end, can be devastating.”
Israel’s use of administrative detention is also particularly damaging to the “liberal democracy” image that Israel tries to project. The Israeli Army can imprison Palestinians on secret evidence for months at a time, renewably, leading to situations where Palestinian prisoners can be detained without charge for literally years. Israel has held as many as 1000 Palestinians simultaneously under administrative detention.
The leader of the hunger strike, Marwan Barghouti, also points out that Israel maintains parallel legal systems in the West Bank – what he terms a “judicial apartheid” – which “provides virtual impunity for Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, while criminalizing Palestinian presence and resistance.” The conviction rate of Palestinians in Israeli military courts is a whopping 99.74 percent, while the conviction rate of Israeli soldiers or settlers accused of crimes against Palestinians is extremely low.
Most Canadian political leaders tout their support of the “two state” solution between Israel and Palestine, but fail to draw a link between the ongoing tensions and Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians. Given that the Trudeau government is reluctant even to speak out against Israel’s illegal settlements – unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council in December – it is hard to imagine that Trudeau would ever stand up for Palestinian prisoners.
In 1981, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to cede to any of the Irish republican prisoner demands. Like Thatcher, Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman has suggestedIsrael too should let the Palestinian hunger strikers die before granting them their human rights. Bobby Sands and other Irish hunger strikers died martyrs, and attitudes on both sides of the conflict hardened even further. Northern Ireland went on to suffer sectarian violence for another 17 years before both sides were finally forced to make peace.
When NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton dared to speak out about the rights of Palestinian prisoners last week, she was criticized by pro-Israel lobby group B’nai Brith Canada. Yet unless international political leaders stand up for human rights and security of everyone in Israel-Palestine, all talk of a two-state solution will remain just that: talk. Perhaps when making her comments, Ashton had Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in mind when he stated so eloquently, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”