On Thursday 27th May 2021, the Human Rights Council convened a Special Session to address ‘the grave human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem’.
The Special Session was requested via an official letter dated 19 May 2021 and signed by H.E Mr. Khalil Hashmi, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Pakistan, and Coordinator of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues, as well as H.E Mr. Ibrahim Khraishi, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine. This letter, addressed to H.E. Ms. Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Human Rights Council, was officially supported by 22 member States[i] and 47 observer States[ii].
In conformity with operative paragraph 10 of the General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Human Rights Council is ‘able to hold Special Sessions, when needed, at the request of a member of the Council with the support of one third of the membership of the Council’ (i.e. 16 member States or more). Special Sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.
Webcasts of statements delivered during the Session can be found here, here and here.
The Council’s action on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem to date
Eight of the Council’s thirty Special Sessions to date have addressed the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, namely: the 1st Special Session on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (5th April 2006); the 3rd Special Session on Israeli military incursions in Occupied Palestinian Territory (15 November 2006); the 6th Special Session on human rights violations emanating from Israeli military attacks and incursions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including recent ones in occupied Gaza and the West Bank town of Nablus (23-24 January 2008); the 9th Special Session on the grave violations of human rights in Occupied Palestinian Territory including the recent aggression in the occupied Gaza Strip (9 January 2009); the 12th Special Session on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem (15-16 October 2009); the 21st Special Session on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem (23 July 2014); the 28th Special Session on the deteriorating human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem (18 May 2018) and the 30th Special Session on the grave human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem (27 May 2021). As such, 26% of Special Session have been convened to discuss the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.
30th Special Session
The session, held virtually on Thursday 27 May 2021, began with keynote statements by H.E. Ms. Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Michael Lynk,
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) (delivered as a joint statement on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures), Mr. Issam Younis, Director for Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza and Head of ICHR of Palestine, Mr. Mohammad Barakeh, Former Member of the Knesset and Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee in Israel, and Ms. Muna El Kurd, Journalist and resident of the Sheikh Jarrah district in Jerusalem.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the 30th Special Session by calling attention to the ‘appalling events in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territory’, where according to figures confirmed by her Office, 242 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Security Forces (ISF), including 63 children, while 10 Israeli citizens, including two children were killed by rockets launched by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups.
While condemning and calling for accountability for the indiscriminate missile attacks launched by Hamas in clear violation of international humanitarian law (IHL), Ms. Bachelet expressed serious concern regarding Israel’s compliance with the IHL principles of distinction and proportionality during their air strikes, which if not respected could constitute war crimes. She further recalled that while locating military assets in densely populated civilian areas is a violation of IHL, ‘the actions of one party do not absolve the other from its obligations under international law’. While stressing that Israel indubitably has the right to defend itself, Ms. Bachelet pointed to the power and protection imbalance between Palestinians and Israelis and highlighted the equal rights of Palestinians, which in reality they are systematically deprived of while living under occupation.
Ms. Bachelet also briefly addressed the situation in the West Bank, lamenting the use of force against protesters, calling on Israeli authorities to halt evictions and expressing concern at incidents of settler violence, in some cases alongside the ISF. Additionally, the High Commissioner expressed concern at the ‘situation inside Israel, where there were unprecedented scenes of clashes, mob violence and riots between Palestinian citizens of Israel and ultra-right-wing groups, reinforced by Israeli settlers.’ While welcoming the ceasefire of 21 May, she stressed that unless the root causes of this violence are addressed, it is only a matter of time before the next round of violence commences.
Ultimately, Ms. Bachelet called for accountability for the violation of IHL and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) committed by all parties to the conflict, recalled Israel’s obligation as occupying power to protect the population of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and to ensure their welfare and stressed that ‘only when human rights are fully respected and protected can trust start to be built between the various communities and a durable, lasting and just peace be achieved.’
Mr. Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, then delivered a joint statement on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures. The statement lamented the calamitous repetition of what has previously been witnessed in 2018, 2014, 2012, 2008-09, 2000, 1987 and ‘further and deeper into the tragic history of the Palestinians’. Mr. Lynk drew attention to the dire plight of Palestinians in Gaza, which he called the world’s ‘largest open-air prison’ and in which its population ‘lack jobs, electricity, clean water, affordable housing, a functioning economy and decently-stocked hospitals, and without hope or the freedom to experience the wider world’.
He compared the confrontations over the exercise of religious rights and the sustained campaign of settler organisations to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, to embers that have been smouldering for years and which ignited the latest violence. He recalled the UN’s repeated demands that Israel comply with its international obligations as the occupying power and cease its settlement activities, arguing that the occupation ‘has become indistinguishable from annexation.’ Pointing to various reports that have been commissioned by the Council in the past decade, which detail serious violations of IHL and IHRL, he called for accountability to rise to the top of the international agenda and urged for an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Finally, he pointed to the fact that all recent peace initiatives have been conducted largely or entirely outside of the framework of international law and human rights as the reason for their failure. As such, he called for the diplomatic framework to end the occupation to be based on international law and human rights, rather than realpolitik and argued for the need for international intervention to address the power asymmetries and ensure meaningful accountability.
Mr. Issam Younis, Director for Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza and Head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) of Palestine delivered a statement recounting the fear and appalling humanitarian conditions in which Gaza’s population of 2 million are forced to live, while enduring Israel’s military campaigns. He argued that recent events are only the symptom of a greater problem, namely that Palestinians have endured ‘systematic institutionalized and long-established laws, policies and practices that aim to impose and maintain a colonial regime of racial domination and oppression’.
Mr. Mohammad Barakeh, former Member of the Knesset and Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee in Israel, recounted a history of violations and abuses of Palestinians’ rights, including different forms of discrimination, confiscation of land, restrictions on job opportunities and arbitrary arrests, which he argued amount to collective punishment. In particular, his intervention focused on the adoption, in 2018, of the Nation-State Bill, which enshrines self-determination as unique to the Jewish people and which he regretted contains no provisions on democracy and civil equality, thus institutionalizing State discrimination. He called on the international community to raise their voices and to hold the government of Israel accountable for arbitrary and repressive measures taken against Palestinian people.
In her statement, Ms. Muna El Kurd, journalist and resident of the Sheikh Jarrah district in Jerusalem, also recounted various violations and abuses including forced displacement and evictions, restrictions on movement, and violent repression of peaceful protests. She stressed that according to international law, Israel has no sovereignty over East Jerusalem.
H.E Ms. Meirav Eilon Shahar, Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN in Geneva, speaking on behalf of the country concerned, stressed that each one of the more than 4400 rockets fired by Hamas at Israeli civilians constitutes a war crime. She drew distinctions between Israel, ‘a democracy that seeks peace and abides by international law’ and ‘takes all steps to adhere to the principles of distinction, proportionality, and necessity’, and Hamas, ‘a murderous, extreme terrorist organization’, which ‘fires rockets indiscriminately, targeting civilians, to kill as many innocent people as possible’. She highlighted that while, during the recent conflict, Israel took all measures to protect civilians, the loss of innocent life was the result of Hamas’s intentional tactic of using human shields and civilian infrastructure as bases.
Ms. Eilon Shahar underlined that Hamas initiated the conflict and purposely raised tensions in Jerusalem to justify its attacks – tensions that Israel tried to defuse. She argued that the failure to condemn Hamas during this Session would only serve to legitimise and strengthen it. Ultimately, she called on all member States to choose whether they are pro-Hamas or pro-Palestinian, stressing that these are irreconcilable positions.
H.E. Mr Riad Malki, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the State of Palestine, speaking on behalf of the country concerned lamented the death, destruction and suffering that resulted from the Israeli airstrike campaign. He expressed gratitude to all States that have allowed the Special Session to be held and repeatedly stressed the need for accountability, including by establishing a Commission to investigate all violations and present recommendation to end the cycle of impunity, as well as through an ICC investigation. Ultimately, he underlined that sustainable peace would remain elusive without an end to the occupation and justice for the violations and abuses suffered by the Palestinian people.
During the following debate, five high-level speakers delivered statements, including, H.E. Ms. Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of Namibia; H.E. Mr. Abdul Momen, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh; H.E. Mr. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan; and H.E. Ms. Najla Elmangoush, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Government of National Unity of Libya.
Additionally, six statements were delivered on behalf of groups of States, along with 20 statements by member States, 51 by observer States and 18 by non-governmental organisations[iii].
Pakistan speaking on behalf of the OIC member States that requested the Special Session strongly condemned ‘Israel’s recent military aggression, use of lethal force against peaceful protestors, and state-sponsored settler violence against the Palestinian people’. They lamented the deaths, destruction and displacements that further aggravated the long-standing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. They stressed that despite the ceasefire, Israeli colonial occupation and policy of ethnic cleansing continues and called for result-oriented global efforts to address the root causes of this long festering issue within the framework of the two-State solution. Finally, they called on the Council to speak with one voice to ensure respect for basic human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people, as well as meaningful accountability for the human rights abuses being perpetrated.
Portugal delivered a statement on behalf of the European Union condemning the indiscriminate launching of rockets by Hamas and reiterating their recognition of Israel’s right to self-defense, while recalling that this right must be exercised in a proportionate manner in full respect of IHL. They called for respect of the Holy Sites and the right to worship and urged to ‘seize the opportunity to restore a political horizon towards a two-state solution, develop confidence-building measures, improve living conditions for the people and open the path towards the potential relaunching of the peace process’.
South Africa speaking on behalf of the African Group, condemned the violent attacks around the Al-Aqsa Mosque committed by Israeli Security Forces, as well as the bombardments in the Gaza Strip and reiterated that these actions, including the continued forced, illegal evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, are in stark violation of international law. While welcoming the cease-fire brokered by Egypt, they reiterated support to the Palestinians’ struggle for their rights, including to self-determination, as well as their ‘legitimate quest for an independent and sovereign State with East Jerusalem as its capital’. Ultimately, they expressed their support for the establishment of an international independent Commission of Inquiry to contribute to putting an end to impunity.
Sweden speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, delivered a statement expressing deep concern at the recent violence and lamenting the loss of life, particularly of children. They welcomed the ceasefire, condemned Hamas’ indiscriminate attacks and recognised Israel’s right to defend itself while stressing the need to ensure that any response is in line with international law. They also stressed the need to address the root causes of the conflict, highlighted that settlement expansion is illegal under international law, and called for respect of the right to worship. Finally, they called on the international community to support a credible process towards a two-state solution and an end to the occupation.
Azerbaijan delivered a statement on behalf of the non-aligned movement, condemning the acts of aggression by the Israeli occupying power, as well as attacks on Palestinian worshippers and acts of violence, provocation and incitement by Israeli settlers. They called on Israel to cease any activities aimed at altering the demography, character, identity and legal status of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and urged accountability and corrective action for all violations committed by Israel.
Egypt speaking on behalf of the group of Arab States who called for the Special Session strongly condemned the blatant aggression on Palestinians in East Jerusalem, particularly during the month of Ramadan, as well as settler activities and continued attacks and aggression in the Gaza strip, which has exacerbated an already difficult humanitarian situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. They repeatedly stressed the need for the international community to conduct thorough investigations with a view to holding Israel accountable.
Mexico speaking in its national capacity expressed appreciation for the convening of the Special Session, noting that the Council has the capacity and obligation to contribute to dialogue when grave human rights violations are presumed to have occurred. They expressed grave concern at the continued deterioration of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, as well as in Israel and condemned the missile attacks from Gaza, as well as the disproportionate use of force by the ISF. In particular, they lamented the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure and the unacceptable violence against children. While welcoming the ceasefire, they called for unrestricted humanitarian access, as well as an embargo on the sale of weapons to all parties to the conflict. Ultimately, they recognized that recent tragic events are the product of prolonged conflict derived from a state of occupation with multiple human rights violations. They reiterated their support for a two-state solution, as well as the work of the UN’s Special Envoy and called for the Council and the High Commissioner to continue monitoring possible violations, so as they might be transmitted to competent accountability mechanisms, with a view to avoiding recurrence.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights delivered a statement stressing that the root causes of the violence can no longer be ignored and highlighting that Palestinians have been forcefully displaced, strategically fragmented and placed into a system of racial and ethnic domination amounting to apartheid. They stressed that Palestinians have been divided into Gaza, the West Bank and 48 sub-regions with the goal to impose Jewish-Israeli ethnic domination and control and deny Palestinians’ right to exist in the land they were born in and to choose their own destiny. Finally, they called for a permanent investigation to facilitate justice and accountability.
Human Rights Watch lamented that while recent events are not new, these will re-occur unless the root causes of denial of collective and individual Palestinian rights are addressed, the policies of systematic discrimination and repression are recognised for what they are, namely apartheid and persecution, and Western States stop shielding Israel from meaningful consequences and ensure accountability. In this regard they stressed that unlike under item 7, the European Union doesn’t have procedural excuses for not supporting the resolution, calling the session a test of the values it professes.
The World Jewish Congress delivered a statement drawing a comparison between the 90 seconds allocated for their statement and the time every single Israeli has to scramble to try to find shelter in the face of Hamas rocket fire. They, therefore, called on the Council to condemn Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
[i] Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Burkina Faso, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Indonesia, Libya, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) (as well as the Netherlands and the Philippines that notified their support after publication of the letter)
[ii] Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Benin, Brunei Darussalam, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Suriname, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and the State of Palestine (as well as, Ireland, Luxembourg and Peru that notified their support after publication of the letter)
[iii] The number of the NGO statements had been limited to 18, the average number of NGO statements during the three preceding HRC Special Sessions, as part of COVID-19 related extra-ordinary measures
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