22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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'A scandalously missed opportunity'By Sherine Bahaa
"It was a sad day, not only for the Palestinians and Arabs, but for humanitarian laws," Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, said in reference to the failure to hold a scheduled meeting last week for the countries which signed the 1949 Geneva Convention due to strong US pressures.
The meeting was expected to discuss Israel's violations of the rules of the convention which aims at protecting civilians living under occupation. US Vice President Al Gore personally led a fierce campaign to cancel the meeting, claiming that international gatherings aimed at condemning Israel could only damage the positive atmosphere which followed the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Gore, supported by Israel, argued that bilateral negotiations is the only means to settle differences and not international conferences.
Following last-minute confusion and uncertainty on the conference's fate, participants agreed to hold a 45-minute opening session only to announce that the meeting was to be postponed indefinitely. A consensus statement, which did not condemn Israeli practices or even name Israel, "reaffirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the cccupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem." The four-paragraph statement also called for "the full respect of the pact and reserved a right to reconvene if things deteriorated."
The conference was called for by the UN General Assembly in a resolution approved last February. The resolution gained the support of 115 countries and was opposed only by the United States, Israel and Micronesia.
Although the convention was signed 50 years ago, the contracting parties never met to discuss its implementation. Thus, Palestinians and human rights activists saw the meeting as an important opportunity to advance the application of international humanitarian law.
The convention bans usurpation of land by an occupying power, mistreatment of civilians and any sort of collective punishment.
Condemning the outcome of the conference, Ashrawi argued that its main aim was to "address the enforceability, not the applicability, of the Fourth Geneva Convention and clearly, there was an attempt to subject international humanitarian law to political concerns and priorities."
Appalled by the failure of the conference, the London-based human rights group, Amnesty International, issued a statement only hours after the adjournment of the conference condemning its outcome. "The High Contracting Parties have only met to decide to defer their responsibilities. Today marks a scandalously missed opportunity to reaffirm international humanitarian law," Amnesty said.
The international organisation called on the international community not to succumb to failure. "If the resolution adopted by the General Assembly is not to remain simple lip service, it is imperative that the meeting of High Contracting Parties be reconvened before the end of the year and that the question of enforcement measures be addressed in order to lead to concrete steps," the statement said.
It was not long ago when Palestinian Minister of Planning Nabil Shaath described the conference as of "utmost importance."
At a meeting of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People in Cairo last month, Shaath appealed to the international community to hold the conference on time whatever happens. "If Mr [Ehud] Barak declared on the morning of 15 July a total end to settlement activity, the meeting will still go on, but it won't be confrontational. We want the meeting to set rules and mechanisms to make the Geneva Convention work," he declared.
Shaath, who headed the Palestinian delegation to the 15 July Geneva meeting, toned down his statements in the brief opening session, saying that Barak should be given "the benefit of the doubt."
Comparing his recent 30-minute statement in Cairo to his 10-minute statement at the Geneva conference, it was evident that the United States has exerted a lot of pressure.
"Unfortunately, the US exercised its pressure with full power on countries like Canada, Australia and the Europeans who, for their part, accepted a symbolic meeting rather than an actual meeting for enforceability," Ashrawi declared. Out of 15 European Union members, France was the only country which supported holding the meeting on time.
For her part, Ahsrawi organised a parallel NGO meeting for international human rights organisations, in which the issues scheduled to be raised at the Geneva meeting were addressed. They also sent a letter to US President Bill Clinton asking him not to manipulate the convention. But all was to no avail, "and the Palestinian Authority accepted this type of formalistic approach rather than the substantive approach," Ashrawi said.
According to Ashrawi, the Palestinians did not miss an occasion to speak up for their cause which gained recognition "of the de jure applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Yet, once we reached the issue of enforceability, the whole thing was aborted and postponed."
Indeed, pressure on the Palestinians and on all parties to the conference turned the historical incident into a non-event on a crucial issue. But an Israeli official who was echoing his country's total rejection of the convening of the conference was more comfortable in describing its performance as a "non-event on a non-issue."
Ashrawi called the event "a compromise to appeal and respond to American pressure. The Americans wanted to give Barak a chance. In fact, the Fourth Geneva Convention conference was politicised and I feel it turned to be a negative precedent, despite the talk about the de jure applicability of the Convention."