|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
If international humanitarian law applies anywhere, it is in the occupied Palestinian territories. Why, then, is it not being respected? In Geneva, Dina Ezzat examines Israeli violations, and the efforts being made to mitigate the most pernicious effects of an intolerable occupation
'Legal, not political'Forget condemning violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention -- the signatories may not even be sitting down together
This week in Geneva and Zurich, Arab, European and other diplomats are meeting to discuss the conference of the high contracting parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilians in time of war. If agreement prevails on the rationale, objective, agenda and possible outcome of this event, the conference could then take place any time within the coming few weeks, or even months.
How 'general and abstract' is international humanitarian law?
Photo: George Nemeh
Arab, and specifically Egyptian, efforts were behind the request to host the meeting presented last October to Switzerland, the depository state of the Geneva Conventions. The objective was to re-assert the application of this convention to the occupied Palestinian territories (East Jerusalem included), and encourage the international community to fulfil its humanitarian obligations and protect Palestinians living under an Israeli occupation that remains in gross violation of international humanitarian law.
The request was forwarded to the Swiss government last October, a month after the outbreak of the Intifada. Since then, no date has been set for the conference. In fact, it is still not clear whether it will happen at all. Both the US and Israel opposed it, and are lobbying hard to prevent it from taking place.
The Arab countries, however, are still pursuing all possible diplomatic channels to ensure that the meeting, which they think is necessary, will be held. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa recently met with the Swiss ambassador in Cairo to convey the Arab point of view.
"This is strictly a legal matter. It has to do with international humanitarian law. We are not saying that Israel is bad or that we want it condemned. We are only saying that Israel is violating certain articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which it has signed," commented Ambassador Saad El-Farargi, head of the Arab League Permanent Mission to the UN, a Geneva-based organisation. He added: "Since Article 1 stipulates that contracting states have an obligation to respect and ensure the respect of this convention, we want the international community to pursue a collective effort to secure respect of international humanitarian law."
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other UN relief organisations working in the Palestinian occupied territories, Israel frequently violates the Geneva Convention. Closure constitutes a violation, as does the denial of family visits to prisoners. House destruction is another violation, and so is collective punishment. Certainly, the construction of settlements on occupied land is also a serious violation of international law.
This said, none of these international organisations has spoken in favour of the conference. An ICRC source commented: "We don't believe it is our role to apply the convention. We tell the countries, you sign the convention, it is your responsibility." This laissez-faire attitude, he says, "at times" offers the Red Cross a measure of leverage on the Israeli side when they need it -- to prevent Israeli soldiers from besieging patients in Palestinian hospitals, or when they need ambulances to move "a bit freely" to reach the victims of Israeli attacks.
The ICRC source, however, told Al-Ahram Weekly that his organisation welcomes all efforts to convene this conference "if the states think it will be useful."
Other organisations are equally non- committal. Even UNRWA, whose work the Israeli authorities often obstruct, is not a particularly strong advocate. "Respect of the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it easier for us to operate, but the convocation of the conference as such does not," one UNRWA official told the Weekly.
Due to intense Arab diplomatic pressure, however, a respectable majority (80 of the 130-odd UN member states that are high contracting parties) is now in favour of the conference. Others have offered a conditional agreement. "They said they are not opposed to the conference as such, but they don't want it to become a scene for accusations and acrimony," a European diplomat explained.
The Swiss government, which one Arab diplomat described as apprehensive about the idea, is currently conducting consultations with all concerned parties. A Swiss government spokesperson cautioned: "It is important to underline the difference between the role of Switzerland as depository of the Geneva Conventions and its position as a state party to the same conventions." In its capacity as depository, Switzerland has "asked the high contracting parties to communicate their views on whether they deemed such a meeting appropriate, and, if so, on the objectives of a new meeting or conference. The Swiss government is presently conducting informal consultations with state parties on the modalities of such a conference," the spokeswoman said.
She added, however: "As a state party, Switzerland is greatly concerned about the humanitarian situation in the field, but as depository of the conventions it is not in a position to define the timing of the conference."
Some members of the Swiss parliament have criticised their government nonetheless, arguing that it is not doing enough to support efforts to get the conference off the ground.
The conference of high contracting parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention took place only once before, on 15 July 1999. This meeting lasted for only 12 minutes, during which time a statement was read to reflect the common understanding reached by the participants. These parties, according to the statement, "reaffirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem." Furthermore, they reiterated the need for "full respect for the provisions of the said convention in that territory."
But at the time, the international community still believed the peace process was getting a new lease of life with the election of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The US, Israel and even the EU therefore lobbied for the conference to be adjourned, "on the understanding that it will be convened again in the light of consultations on the development of the humanitarian situation in the field."
In the past nine months, the Arab countries argue, "the humanitarian situation in the field" has deteriorated sharply, and holding the conference is therefore an urgent necessity.
Given current US attempts to re-start negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, however, Washington is once again opposing the conference. "They are telling us the peace process is in progress; don't disturb," one Geneva-based diplomatic source told the Weekly.
The Arabs disagree. They feel that the US efforts to secure a cooling off period and a resumption of political negotiations have failed to prevent Israeli violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. "We are talking about a legal, not a political issue here, so the rationale still stands for this conference to be held," an Arab diplomatic source commented. "The high contracting parties need to meet so they can secure an end to these violations and a legal international follow-up mechanism to prevent their recurrence."
Recommend this page© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time