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Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at press conference in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, 11 February 2011

Good afternoon,

It is a great pleasure to be here, on my first visit to the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel since I took up office as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

I was received with courtesy by the Government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, meeting with both President Shimon Peres and President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and a number of Ministers, state officials and other interlocutors in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). I would like to express my deep appreciation for the good cooperation which has characterized this visit.

I met Palestinian victims of human rights violations in a variety of locations in the oPt, including East Jerusalem and several towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza. I and my team also met with victims in Sderot, West Jerusalem and the Negev desert. They explained their extreme hardships to us with great patience and dignity, and left me with a profound impression of the difficult human rights situation of so many civilians, because of the conflict, occupation and discriminatory laws and practices.

I also had very informative meetings with four different groups of exceptionally dedicated human rights defenders in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza City.

Collectively, my many interlocutors raised a wide range of complex multi-layered human rights issues and situations, intertwined with the ever-present, and ever complicating, security concerns and political considerations.

As High Commissioner, my mandate is independent and impartial and my comments, reports and actions are always firmly rooted in international human rights law. I do not do politics, I do law. I am particularly concerned about whether or not the rule of law is being applied in line with international standards.

With regard to human rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), I have one paramount concern, which has been reinforced by what I’ve seen and heard during my visit. This is that the politics of conflict, peace and security are constantly leading to the downgrading, or setting aside, of the importance of binding international human rights and humanitarian law.

International human rights law and international humanitarian law are not negotiable. No individual or state can be considered exempt, if they violate the law.

I wish now to outline some of those international legal principles, relating to the occupation of Palestinian territory, before moving on to some more specific issues both in the oPt and in Israel itself.

The settlement of Israeli citizens in the occupied Palestinian territory is clearly prohibited under international law. As a result, all State actions in support of the establishment and maintenance of the settlements, including incentives to create them and the establishment of infrastructure to support them, are illegal under international law. They should be stopped altogether. The idea that a partial or temporary halt is a valuable concession in the peace process, to be traded against something else, is turning the law on its head.

The annexation of East Jerusalem contravenes customary international law, as confirmed by Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. This has also been recognized by the International Court of Justice. Because of its illegality, the annexation has not been recognized by any State. Under international law, East Jerusalem remains part of the West Bank and is occupied territory.

All settlement-related activities, and any legal or administrative decision or practice that directly or indirectly coerce Palestinians to leave East Jerusalem, including evictions, demolitions, forced displacements and cancelation of residence permits on a discriminatory basis, should be halted and restrictions on access to East Jerusalem by other West Bank inhabitants should be lifted. The confiscation or expropriation of private property in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, is in almost all cases also illegal. East Jerusalem is being steadily drained of its Palestinian inhabitants, in clear-cut defiance of Security Council resolutions.

The International Court of Justice, in its 2004 advisory opinion, stated that establishing the Wall, or barrier, inside occupied territory is prohibited under international law. Some 85 percent of the wall, when it is completed, will be located inside occupied territory, and therefore illegal. It will also have effectively sequestered around 9.5 percent of West Bank territory.

The combined effects of the illegal settlements and the Wall, that has been diverted illegally to protect them, have been devastating on the social, economic and cultural rights of many thousands of Palestinians. Families are divided from each other and from their neighbours, from their agricultural land and other sources of income, from their water sources and from other important infrastructure and services, including schools, health clinics and hospitals. Their new neighbours, the illegal settlers, often treat them with contempt, hostility and even physical violence. The settlers receive massive protection from Israeli security forces, but hardly any protection is being provided to the Palestinians living next door.

I have visited a few of those Palestinians affected by the Wall and settlements. It is only when you learn about the cruelly cramped and circumscribed situation imposed on individual fellow human beings, and see for yourself the full-frontal assault on their dignity, that you can really begin to understand the true horror of the policies that are stifling their social, cultural and economic prospects, and crippling their morale. A striking case was that of Mr. Sabri Ghareeb, whose home was boxed in by Israeli security fences effectively isolating him and his family from their community

You have to see for yourself the contortions of the Wall as it snakes around settlements, dividing lands and villages, sometimes boxing in single dwellings, and scarring the landscape and the lives of thousands; and you have to talk to its victims, to get a glimpse of the intensely negative impact the fragmentation of the West Bank by the Wall, settlements and checkpoints is having on human rights, peace, development and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Many of the affected Palestinians facing displacement because of the grave deterioration in their way of life, are refugees who have already been displaced once or twice before and during the 1948 and 1967 wars.

I have been struck by the complacency with which the entirely avoidable predicament of Palestinians affected by the Wall and settlements is treated by Israeli authorities with whom I have discussed these issues. They tend to be brushed aside as though they are minor matters. They are not. They are clear-cut violations of human rights on a very large scale.

Another overarching human rights concern is the lack of accountability on many fronts. Individual officials and members of the security and military forces in Israel and the oPt, including the de facto authorities in Gaza, have been violating international human rights law for years, with few prosecutions, successful or otherwise.

War crimes and crimes against humanity are two of the most serious crimes, and credible allegations that they have been committed must be properly investigated.

In addition, extremists among the Israeli settlers who commit abuses against their Palestinian neighbours, including both physical attacks and destruction of property, such as olive trees, and infrastructure including mosques, tend to escape unpunished.

This culture of impunity leads to more abuses against and between civilians, stimulates anger and resentment on all sides, and impedes the peace process.

In the West Bank, I was encouraged by the strong statements of commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights made by officials at the highest level. Prime Minister Salam Fayad noted his government’s readiness to enter into a full memorandum of understanding with my office. Ministers confirmed the willingness of the Palestinian National Authority to ensure access to detention facilities and their desire to work on a national human rights plan of action. They are already working towards implementing obligations under international human rights law with a view to subsequent ratification of international human rights treaties once statehood is achieved.

I am encouraged to learn that the latest draft of the new penal code includes provisions for abolishing the death penalty and protecting women from violence. The Minister of Justice noted the efforts to include more women in the judiciary.

However, I did express my concern to Palestinian National Authority officials relating to recent reports about arbitrary detention and ill treatment in detention, and emphasized the need to respect and protect the role of a vibrant civil society and the Independent Commission for Human Rights.

In Gaza, I visited one of the many UNRWA schools and was moved by how Palestinian children expressed their commitment to human rights, peace and reconciliation.

I commend Gaza human rights defenders and civil society organizations for their courageous efforts to promote human rights, accountability and the respect for the rule of law. In particular, I wish to salute the many organizations devoted to the rights of women in Gaza. Their work is absolutely essential. Recent crackdowns by the de-facto authorities, including forced closures of NGOs as well as efforts to limit the independence and unity of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, are unacceptable. One human rights defender told me that civilians were in the ‘eye of the storm between Fatah and Hamas.’

I also met fishermen, families and individuals in Gaza affected by the so-called buffer zone linked to the blockade. The blockade of Gaza is illegal, and is not warranted by Israel’s legitimate security concerns. It must be lifted.

Rockets continue to be fired from Gaza into Israel, including at least eight since I began my visit last Sunday. I urge the militants in Gaza to halt firing rockets immediately. They are not only committing war crimes and continuing to terrorize large numbers of civilians, they are also doing a disservice to the Palestinian people by placing a major obstacle in the path of the peace process and playing into the hands of those who wish to maintain the blockade.

Yesterday, before entering Gaza, I visited Sderot in Israel and saw the long-term tension and trauma created by these indiscriminate attacks on towns in western Israel. The Mayor of Sderot asked me to hand over a letter to the Mayor of Gaza City proposing they work together to improve understanding between their communities. I applaud this initiative, and have taken steps to ensure that his letter will be delivered.

Gilad Shalit has now been held by Hamas for more than four and half years. While I was in Gaza I repeated my call for his release on humanitarian grounds, and conveyed the message that, at a minimum, regular visits by the ICRC and communications with his family must be permitted.

I remain troubled by numerous human rights issues, including women’s rights and the use of the death penalty, related to actions by the de-facto authorities in Gaza, and my concerns on these issues were also clearly conveyed to them.

Many Gazans still feel the tragic impact of Operation Cast Lead on their daily lives. Accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict remain to be addressed by all parties. I was deeply moved by the extremely distressing situation of family members of Palestinian detainees and prisoners in Israel who have not been able to visit their relatives and loved ones for more than four years.

In Israel, I discussed a range of discrimination-related issues including the treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, the on-going demolition of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, and the rhetoric and other actions apparently aimed at curbing the freedom and effectiveness of Israel’s human rights defenders.

Israel is a country which prides itself on its democracy. Among the finest defenders of that democracy are the judicial system, and the extremely robust media and civil society organizations.

Israel’s Supreme Court is strong and independent and has often acted as a restraint on the executive in matters relating to human rights, including for Palestinians. There are however question marks about the implementation of Supreme Court decisions by the army and other state authorities. During my visit, I met with both the former and current Presidents of the Supreme Court.

Discrimination is a problem that has been highlighted to me. It is most apparent in the markedly different treatment of Palestinians and settlers living side by side in the occupied territory. Palestinians in the oPt who are suspected of crimes are dealt with by military courts, whereas settlers are dealt with under civil law.

I am concerned at the repeated demolition of “unrecognized” Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert, and after meeting one man who told me his village had just been demolished for the 15th time, I dispatched two members of my team to visit this and neighbouring villages and report back to me. This is an issue we will continue to watch closely.

One of my main concerns is the current pressure that is being applied to Israel’s famously strong, independent and generally very professional human rights defenders. This is manifested in a dramatic increase in inflammatory rhetoric aiming to discredit them and undermine their work. This is a very troubling development. A strong and independent civil society is, like a free media and an independent judiciary, a cornerstone of an open democratic society. Israel should defend and be proud of its civil society organizations.

All these problems that I have raised are solvable. Palestinians and Israelis are equally entitled to security and human rights, neither of which can be pursued at the expense of the other. I am encouraged by the fact that all my interlocutors during this visit took human rights seriously and showed preparedness to engage on the issues raised.

END

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