On 23rd July, in view of the on-going crisis in Gaza, the United Nations Human Rights Council (‘the Council’) convened a Special Session on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. The meeting – the 21st Special Session since the Council was established in 2006 – was called by twenty-two members of the Council, namely Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Cuba, Gabon, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Peru, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Vietnam. Sixteen observer states, namely Afghanistan, Bahrain, Brunei Darussalam, Ecuador, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Qatar, Senegal, State of Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen, also supported the request for a Special Session.
The meeting began with keynote statements by Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Kyung-wha Kang, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator; Lance Bartholomeusz, Director of Legal Affairs of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East; and Makarim Wibisono, Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. A summary of their statements can be found here.
During the following debate, seventy-eight delegations (including Israel and Palestine) took the floor to deliver statements on the human rights and humanitarian situation in Gaza. See figure 1 (below) for a brief summary of statements by members of the Council.
Figure 1: Statements and Voting at the 21st Special Session of the Human Rights Council
Statements delivered by the coordinators of regional and political groups such as the Arab Group, African Group, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and Non Aligned Movement, representing a majority of developing countries, condemned the serious human rights violations being committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For its part, the EU condemned the loss of hundreds of civilian lives and stressed the need for the protection of civilians at all times. It called on all sides to immediately allow safe and full humanitarian access in Gaza and to implement an immediate ceasefire. A number of Western Council members, including Austria, Germany, Ireland, Italy (on behalf of the EU), the UK and the US, also spoke in support of Israel’s right to defend its population against terrorist attacks, and condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and other armed groups.Many speakers supported the establishment of an independent international Commission of Inquiry (CoI), and some called for a meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The issue of establishing an international CoI eventually became the main point of division between Council members. This division was reflected in the vote on resolution S21/L1: ‘Ensuring respect for International law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory including East Jerusalem’. The resolution was eventually adopted by a recorded vote of twenty-nine in favour, one against and seventeen abstentions (see figure 1, above). A closer look at the voting pattern also revealed a lack of consistency on the part of some delegations such as Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso and Gabon. These countries supported the statements delivered by the African Group and Non Aligned Movement during the interactive dialogue but eventually abstained during the vote on the resolution.
With the adoption of resolution S21/L1, the Human Rights Council:
- Strongly condemned the failure of Israel, the occupying Power, to end its prolonged occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem; and condemned in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014.
- Further condemned all violence against civilians wherever it occurred, including the killing of two Israeli civilians as a result of rocket fire. It called for an immediate cessation of Israeli military assaults throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and an end to attacks against all civilians, including Israeli civilians.
- Demanded that Israel immediately and fully end its illegal closure of the occupied Gaza Strip and called upon the international community to provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance and services to the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.
- Decided to urgently dispatch an independent, international CoI to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014, and to report to the Council at its twenty-eighth session (March 2015).
- Recommended that the Government of Switzerland, in its capacity as depositary of the Fourth Geneva Convention, promptly reconvene the conference of High Contracting Parties to the Convention.
Special Sessions of the Council are convened, at the request of at least one-third of member states, to address urgent human rights situations – either country-specific or thematic. For a breakdown of Special Sessions over time, see figure 2 (below).
Figure 2: Number of Human Rights Council Special Sessions per year
The 21st Special Session was the seventh to focus on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, (the Council has also adopted a total of thirty-seven resolutions on the same subject during its regular sessions). Notwithstanding the undoubted seriousness of the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the fact that fully one third of all Council Special Sessions have focused on one specific situation calls into question whether the UN’s apex human rights body is fulfilling its mandate, as per General Assembly resolution 60/251, to protect human rights ‘without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner…guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity…’
Resolution 60/251 also makes clear that the work of the Council – its members and observers – should be based on the principles of constructive international dialogue and cooperation. Compounding (and linked to) the aforementioned problem of selectivity, it is clear that, on the issue of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, neither Israel nor other key antagonists are fulfilling this responsibility. In the context of a body – the Human Rights Council – that lacks enforcement powers, the result of this situation is that, despite seven Special Sessions (with resolutions) and thirty-seven Council resolutions, the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has not improved and, indeed, continues to deteriorate.
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