The first session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RTP) was heard in Barcelona, Spain earlier this month. The RTP is a peoples’ legal initiative designed to systematically try key actors responsible for the perpetuation of human rights violations in Palestine.
In the frame this time was the European Union (EU). Two days and 21 expert witness testimonies later, the RTP found individual states and the EU as a whole guilty of persistent violations and misconduct with regards to international and internal EU law. These included: assistance in perpetrating the crime of apartheid — deepened in definition as applicable to the violation of the inalienable right of return for refugees and the collective punishment and ghettoization of Gaza; aiding the procurement of war crimes and crimes against humanity particularly with regards to Gaza; and violating the Palestinian right to self-determination, aiding illegal colonization, the annexation of East Jerusalem and theft of natural resources.
We may all know this, but knowing exactly how and through which laws and mechanisms allows for a water-tight case for justice for Palestine and the denormalization of Israel’s occupation.
The RTP’s endorsement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a means to hold Israel and its collaborator states accountable under international law was also a boost to European civil society groups and prominent figures sitting on the fence about the tactic.
The RTP aims to reenergize and popularize the necessary delegitimization of Israeli apartheid, occupation and human rights violations. It’s not just about preventing the crime of silence but also about providing a forum for speaking out, active witnessing and active listening, and to tool up civil society on how to publicize and pressure their governments to abide by the law.
The reason the EU and violation-abetting or non-compliant states have continued to treat the observance of international law and Palestinian rights as a policy issue rather than a legal obligation is because civil society has given them this choice through a lack of pressure in these areas. These states should not have a choice; these legal frameworks are not voluntary or optional once signed, they are obligatory.
The language of international human rights law is dense, inert and dispassionate despite the fact that it has been generated through global anti-colonial, anti-occupation struggle and sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s a language movements should strategically learn and connect to the real-time, felt-on-the-body, resistance and endurance of the Palestinian people and the policy-makers in our parliaments.
Contextualizing the violence of policies of violation in the small print of complicated contracts and treaties, or in casual conversations in presidential dining rooms in Tel Aviv, was enabled by the RTP.
At the RTP, Veronique De Keyser, a European Member of Parliament from Belgium, testified that during a trip to Israel as part of a delegation of European MPs, she was told by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that the Israeli government was intent on instrumentalizing Fatah to undermine Hamas. According to her testimony, Olmert and Livni added that Israel had no interest in recognizing a unity government.
Meir Margalit, a former member of the Jerusalem city council, spoke of soldiers demolishing a Palestinian home in the presence of an EU Commissar. When this fact was brought to the attention of the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Ehud Olmert, it resulted in a delay in the destruction of the home until no MPs were present to witness.
Charles Shamas, a Palestinian legal consultant and founder of the MATTIN group, a voluntary human rights-based partnership in Palestine which focuses on international human rights and international humanitarian law enforcement and third-party state responsibility, mapped the mechanisms by which international law obligations can be triggered in the EU. He explained this could be achieved by targeting obscure internal regulations within EU legal frameworks, deciphering obscure clauses and regulations within EU treaties and targeting them at the appropriate bodies.
Shamas demystified the means by which laws are effectively changed when the EU collaborates in contracts and treaties with Israel. By accepting Israeli definitions of international law rather than its own, the EU is in fact violating its own internal and international laws. For example, a new agreement on civil aviation between the EU and Israel could legitimize the occupation of the Palestinian territories through recognition of airspace and the airports in occupied territory as part of Israel. Shamas cited a challenge to a draft agreement between Europol and the Israeli police authorities which was regarded as unlawful as the police were headquartered in occupied East Jerusalem.
Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers in the UK presented his own experiences to the RTP of attempting to use the British domestic courts to challenge the UK’s failure to fulfill its obligations under international humanitarian law with respect to Israeli activities during its invasion of Gaza last winter. A British court found his claim, which was coordinated with the Palestinian legal organization Al-Haq, to be a matter for "high foreign policy" and denied it. Shiner suggested seeking more compliant alternative EU member state courts to file similar cases.
The applicability of existing international law on conventional weapons was dissected in the context of Israel’s invasion of Gaza by Colonel Desmond Travers, a member of the UN-sponsored Goldstone commission. In his testimony, Travers provided forensic analysis of the flight-path of a flechette dart within the human body. He also discussed Israel’s suspected use of Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) weapons and depleted uranium. Travers also scrutinized Israel’s use of white phosphorous as a weapon rather than an obscurant. Aside for the need for political action to stop Israeli impunity, Travers explained that a ban on certain weaponry altogether including white phosphorous, urgent environmental clean-up and the need for new laws were necessary and should be advocated.
Expert researcher and Middle East specialist Agnes Bertrand detailed the EU’s passive complicity with Israeli violations. Israel has caused an estimated 56.35 million euros worth of infrastructural damage to works funded by the European Community since 2000, with damage suffered during last year’s Gaza invasion amounting to around 12.35 million euros. The EU Commission has no intention of filing for damages or compensation, instead passing the buck to the Palestinian Authority, stating that as the construction aid was given to the PA, it would have to make the claim for it. Yet no legal advice has been forthcoming on how the PA is supposed to do this. The EU’s Association Agreement with Israel, in particular Article 2 and the framing of the dialogue between the EU and Israel were found to be in breach of articles of the International Law Commission and the 1966 covenant on Civil and Political Rights in their exclusion of the observance and inclusion of international law and any references to occupation.
Translating the language and expertise of law into everyday activism as a tool against the attack on the legitimacy of our movement and Palestinian rights is the challenge ahead that the RTP can play a part in. The Barcelona session is only the beginning. The next RTP session will take place in London at the end 2010 and will focus on international corporations profiting from the occupation as well as labor rights in Israel-Palestine. It will be followed by sessions in South Africa focusing on apartheid, and in the United States focusing on the American and UN role in the conflict.
Full findings/conclusions of Barcelona session of Russell Tribunal on Palestine are available at http://www.russelltribunalonpalestine.net/.
Ewa Jasiewicz is a freelance journalist, union organizer and coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement. She was one of the witness for the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.
Frank Barat is coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. He can be reached at russelltribunaluk A T googlemail D O T com.