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Panel 2 of the Conference of Civil Society Organisations Working on the Question of Palestine

Meeting Summaries

The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Ensuring Third Party Responsibility: Perspectives from Global and Regional Voices

SAMAH SISAY, Attorney at the US Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), said the Centre worked to advocate for the rights of Palestinians in the United States and supported the work of the International Court of Justice into investigating human rights violations in Palestine. It had issued urgent warnings to the US Government on the events in Palestine; nevertheless, the US was failing to uphold its legal obligation to prevent genocide, and members of the Government were actively supporting that genocide. The Government had continued to express unwavering support for Israeli activities. The total siege and closure and mass starvation, among others, were evidence of the crime of genocide, one of the gravest crimes under international law. And yet, the United States Government continued to support the Israeli Government, providing financial and military support, even as the situation escalated.

The Centre for Constitutional Rights had brought a case to court against United States President Biden, and other members of the Government, for the United States’ failure to prevent and complicity in the ongoing genocide, asking the Court to establish that these officials had failed to prevent and were aiding and abetting genocide, and to prevent any further support, including the sale of fighter jets and munitions to Israel whilst the case was being considered. For the first time in history, Palestinians had been able to testify in a United States court about the Nakba and the harmful effects of United States support of the bombardment of, and displacement in, Palestine. The testimony of the plaintiffs and the expert opinions offered had indicated that the ongoing military siege of Gaza was intended to eradicate a whole population, and therefore fell within the definition of genocide.

Over the last few months, the US Government had sought to displace its liability, however it had a legal obligation to stop and not further this genocide. The Centre for Constitutional Rights would continue to work to hold them to their obligations.

Yasmine Ahmed, Director of Human Rights Watch UK, said Human Rights Watch had been documenting for decades the ongoing abuses in Palestine, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Israel. Today was the sixth month of ongoing atrocities in Gaza, and after decades of crimes, including apartheid, inflicted by the Occupying Power, Israel. Most of the international community stood at best indifferent and at worst complicit in these crimes. Over 20,000 Palestinian women and girls had been killed. Today, Gaza was literally starving. Israel was using starvation as a weapon of war, in violation of its international obligations and in direct contravention of the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures. This sat against a backdrop of decades of crimes against humanity inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel.

The hostages who were being held against international law and those subjected to crimes on 7 October 2023 must not be forgotten, but the atrocities inflicted on the Palestinian people in Gaza today would not be happening if not for the provision of arms, diplomatic cover, and other forms of support by other States, including some who claimed to be the pillars of the international order, making this order shake in the clear assault on democratic standards. This moment was not only about the Palestinian people but about the legitimacy and survival of the entire rules-based order. Unfortunately, this complicity had not begun in 2023, and there was a heavy historical responsibility that should weigh on the conscience of States such as the United Kingdom. The crimes seen today were a direct result of the cloak of impunity that had been provided to Israel over many decades by third States. States also had a duty with regard to arms transfer, where there was clear evidence that arms could be used to violate international human rights law: this threshold had clearly been met.

Human Rights Watch was working to push the United Kingdom Government to impose an arms embargo now, and to impose sanctions on Israel that went beyond this embargo. It was pushing for the Government to ensure that it supported accountability efforts at the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council, and to ensure that Israel ended its activities.

RAWAN ARRAF, Director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, said the Australian people’s response to the war on Gaza had been multi-faceted and widespread, due to their commitment to a ceasefire, with the greatest anti-war movement since the Iraq War, especially as the Parliament remained silent about the human rights violations taking place. The Government had ignored Israel’s attacks, despite clear evidence of genocidal intent. Concerted action by the right-wing Press and others had derailed attempts to advocate for Palestinian rights. Activists, union members and artists had worked to raise awareness of the situation, and many new groups had sprung up recently to work to protect Palestinian rights, educate communities, and end Australian complicity with Israeli crimes in all its forms. Support continued to grow.

Grassroots groups continued to call for an end to apartheid and the conflict. Australia had hardly condemned Israeli actions, allying with Israel, providing it with political cover, and developing economic and military ties, despite Israel’s violations of humanitarian law. Australia should be doing more, imposing the counter-measures available to it when States were committing violations of humanitarian law. The Centre for International Justice had filed a case in the Federal Court in an attempt to gain more transparency over arms transfers, and was determined to continue to find avenues to uncover information and challenge those transfers. The Government initially ignored the International Court of Justice’s order and instead immediately ended funding to UNRWA. Australia did not accept the premise of the South African application to the International Court of Justice, having stated that it was “binding on the parties”, but this did not absolve Australia of its own obligations. Australia must hold an inquiry and review and assess its political, economic and military links with Israel, and at minimum impose an arms embargo. A comprehensive response should consider a two-way arms embargo, and Australia should issue an advisory to dual nationals warning them of criminal liability if they participated in the Israeli military actions, and of the possibility of prosecution should they do so.

TILDA RABI, President of the Federation of Argentinian-Palestinian Entities, said the urgent and pressing need to respond and take action on behalf of Palestine and Palestinians, and put an end to the systematic and continuing genocide, was clear today. Regarding Palestine and the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel, this had culminated in multiple waves of aggression against the indigenous population, leading to expulsion, arbitrary detention, and death. There had been numerous crimes committed by the Zionist entity, going back more than 75 years. Today, and since last October, these oppressive activities had affected the world as a whole, challenging humanity. Faced with this, civil society and its actors had a critical and decisive role to play, bringing together all who were active in the sphere in different fora and processes in the Global South, putting an end to the dehumanising narrative.

The instruments that civil society organizations had available to them were awareness-raising and civil society mobilisation. Pursuing responsibilities and tasks took the guise of street activities, with mass gatherings calling for a ceasefire, accountability, the respect of the rights of the Palestinians, and an end to the silence or moral support of governments. At the beginning of 2022, a sizeable delegation had left Argentina for Israel, headed by the Minister of the Interior, with the aim of concluding various agreements including social and economic cooperation. However, Argentinian civil society had been working to cooperate further with Palestinian organizations, highlighting new forms of colonialization and settlement, which was also seen in Argentina. The Government was in full support of Zionism, and yet many sectors in society had had it brought home to them just what was meant by “colonial settler policy”, witnessing it first-hand in Argentina itself, where there had been a surge in repression of those who sought to speak out against the Zionist entity.

Community groups often served as the catalyst to achieving the resolution of a tragedy facing humanity. If civil society did not continue to pressure Israel, the deaths would only continue to increase. There was a vital need to approach all of this in a spirit of empathy and humanity, in the spirit of the acts of the Government of South Africa, which confronted an international community that was held hostage by illicit interests. Those who were perpetrating the most documented genocide in human history must be confronted, and contribute to peace and decolonisation, the absence of which cast a long shadow into the twenty-first century.

FRANK CHIKANE, Chair of the Steering Committee of the Global Anti-Apartheid Conference – South Africa, said listening since the morning session to the presentations and discussions, it was a repeat of the same show and same film: South Africans had been present at the United Nations in the 1980s to combat apartheid, and the same countries involved then were present today, where the same countries that supported apartheid were supporting Israel. These governments must be pressurised to not support Israel, and this could only be done by force, by putting pressure on them. He had visited Israel, and had come out convinced that what was experienced there was worse than what was experienced in South Africa at the height of the apartheid system.

Mr. Chikane had met Palestinians who had been driven from their homes, and noted that a Jewish person coming from any part of the world could claim belonging of land in Israel, but a Palestinian could not do the same. It shocked him that the world could allow Palestine to be illegally occupied for about 57 years, and that Gaza could be blockaded for 16 years, and expect the Palestinian people to do nothing. If the United States were blockaded, there would be hell raised. What was happening in Israeli prisons was unknown and it was unconscionable that the world continued to allow this to happen. Unless the international community was able to drill down into the situation, nothing would happen. The problem began with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1948 Nakba, the United Nations resolution that partitioned Palestine.

The international community had allowed Israel to be emboldened to pursue the Zionist project, which was clearly expressed by the words of the current Finance Minister in the Cabinet of Israel, who had said that either Palestinians submitted, left, or died. Palestinians were being brutalised to the end of forcing them to leave, and the world had allowed Israel to do this publicly, in front of the whole world. The only way this could happen was in a context where Palestinians were not viewed as human beings. A racist, settler, colonial mind had to be in place to establish a racist, settler, colonial system. Brutalising Palestinians in the way that they were was simply racist. The worst part was that Israelis themselves were being brutalised and traumatised, and Israeli society would be reinvented to be something else that did not see anything wrong in killing so many children. States must be forced to do what they ought to do, and adopt sanctions.  History had shown that no empire lasted forever: those who had power must remember that power came to an end.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers raised such issues as how the South African experience could be used to advance the Palestinian cause.

Regarding the United States failing its obligations to not aid and abet genocide, a speaker asked what these obligations were and what were the legal obligations of not living up to them. Regarding complicity, Palestinians had been calling for an arms embargo for many decades, a three-way embargo, namely on selling, buying, and transfer. The panellists were asked for more details on what sanctions could be implemented.

Another speaker pointed out the issue of changes in Government and how this could affect relationships between States and Israel and Palestine, highlighting various challenges that could arise in this context. No legal mechanism could work without political will, the speaker said. Priorities must be established, as the way that the international community had been working was not a long-term strategy that could provide change; it was not only the decades of impunity and lack of accountability, it was also the settler process that caused tensions. Focus should be on implementing a de-colonialist strategy.

A further issue raised by a speaker was on the value and potential efficacy of sanctions, and what possible effects could come from targeted effects of sanctions on certain corporations. Another spoke of the need to ensure the prosecution of the Israeli Government members for their actions over past years. Gaza was facing a famine, and this had not been discussed, whilst it should be urgently pursued by the United Nations and world governments. Humanitarian aid and food must be supplied before the people of Gaza died of starvation, as would happen within the next few weeks.

What was the role of neighbouring countries in terms of receiving Palestinian refugees and asylum-seekers, from a legal standpoint, asked another speaker. What specific role could Palestinian communities in the diaspora play in the context of the broader actions of civil society in their countries, another asked.

SAMAH SISAY, Attorney at the US Centre for Constitutional Rights, responding to questions raised, said under the United Nations Convention there was a legal provision to prevent genocide. The Convention did not say that it had to be underway to apply – it showed that if events had a likelihood of extending into genocide, it was up to all parties to intervene to end this. There was mass killing and targeted starvation, and Israel was creating a situation in which a mass of people was about to die. There was an obligation to not commit genocide, prevent it, and to prosecute those who had been or were engaged in it, and this applied to all, so all State parties should be doing everything possible to end the situation, which all knew was an unfolding genocide in Gaza. However, this was not the case in the United States. This was not a war nor just a humanitarian crisis; it was a situation that had been created to target Palestinians. The role of Palestinian society in the diaspora had been to show leadership on behalf of Palestinians, and this had been seen in the litigation against the United States Government that was underway in the United States: the voices and testimony of Palestinians was being heard loud and clear. There had been mass protests, which was causing a shift in the attitude in the United States Congress and legislature, who were calling to an end to weapons sales, and this was due to the efforts of Palestinian civil society, among others.

YASMINE AHMED, Director of Human Rights Watch United Kingdom, said when in such a situation, where it felt like it could not get worse, and yet unfortunately it could, this was an opportunity for change. This was a moment that the international community needed to take, to say enough was enough, and take steps for change. There was an appetite for change – many States were saying that the way forward had to be a two-State solution. What was happening now in Gaza was far from a two-State solution, and civil society must hold governments to account, demanding that action be taken to make this a possibility. Some action had been taken against settlers, but more needed to be done to ensure that those who were involved at the institutional and organisational level knew that they would be sanctioned, and their activities would not be tolerated. There was an obligation on States to not be complicit in action and not facilitate international crimes, but they also had other obligations under international texts, including the Geneva Conventions, to not allow atrocities to be committed. They therefore needed to look beyond sanctions, to options that would stop Israel from perpetrating its acts, with an entire gambit through which the State of Israel would be re-evaluated. States with particularly close relationships with a State that was committing violence had a greater obligation to ensure that this violence ended. There should be a suspension on buying, selling and transferring weapons to Israel.

On the role of the Palestinian diaspora community, they should be front and centre of all the work being done across the world, speaking of their rights and the rights of their communities. There was a weaponization of anti-Semitism across the world to shut down discussion of the rights of Palestinians. Anti-Semitism was egregious and must be fought, but it was not being used in the interests of Jews, undermining the real fight. It was critical for the United Nations to use its role – it was the role and the duty of the Security Council and the Special Committee to fight apartheid. For the first time the United Nations Secretary-General had spoken of the roots of the conflict, contextualising the suffering of the Palestinian people, and it was important to keep this context in mind.

RAWAN ARRAF, Director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, said civil society must play an important role, and should make recommendations in a multilateral fashion in the different jurisdictions with laws in response to targeted objectives linked to Israeli crimes. The Australian Centre had done so in the context of Myanmar regime and corporations linked thereto. It was looking into financial institutions and banks in this context, aiming to refer them to Australia in the context of sanctions.

TILDA RABBI, President of the Federation of Argentinian-Palestinian Entities, said regarding the role of the Palestinian diaspora, with regard to Argentina, that community was fairly small, but was getting stronger internally as well as externally. The Federation had always been convinced that civil society and its organization were its main support, and strove to work together, be it politically, within trade unions, the student movement, or others. The Federation was the main glue bringing all together, allowing for strategic action. It had waged battles. However, the landscape had changed. There had been demonstrations organised by the President, but progress had been made since then on Boycott, Diversion and Sanctions (BDS). In the past legislators did not wish to talk about Israel, but this was now changing. Argentina was not taking strong steps forward, but people’s awareness was changing, and they were taking a specific stance. However, how to arm-wrestle the Government into not being an accomplice to Israel was still the question. The starting point was to create a society that was ready, but the crimes in Gaza would only end when people were really aware of what was happening on the ground. There must be an end to apartheid, discrimination and colonialization, but there needed first to be a change in the political determination in many States.

FRANK CHIKANE, Chair of the Steering Committee of the Global Anti-Apartheid Conference – South Africa, said there were precedents in terms of what had happened with South Africa, which had been suspended from the United Nations, and only returned after the elections in 1994. There was therefore a basis upon which if, Israel defied all provisions of international law, it could be dealt with under international law. Regarding the International Court of Justice action, South African’s action there had been well known, and was a major development there. It was clear that there was a blockage within the International Criminal Court: South Africa had suggested that the whole War Cabinet of Israel be charged with crimes against humanity, but had received no response. 

On the Special Committee, there should be adoption of a resolution against apartheid, and it should be generalised beyond Palestine. He was concerned that Western democracies were allowing themselves to reverse the gains of democracy, maintaining ignorance among their populations in order to avoid calls for change. This showed that democracy itself was at risk, and there was a reversion backwards into dictatorship. These countries should realise that such actions were detrimental to themselves. Member States of the United Nations would not tolerate the killing of their children in the way that children were killed in Gaza.