Defending Human Rights in Occupied Palestine: Working Through the UN is the title of a new book by Richard Falk, John Dugard, and Michael Lynk. They discuss their work and experiences as UN investigators as both friends and colleagues.
Even the most flagrant violations of international law that they documented seem to be surpassed by Israel’s current far-right, overtly racist administration, making the book, which includes a prologue by the special rapporteur in office, Francesca Albanese, a very essential resource.
Special rapporteurs can function quite freely and impartially because the position is voluntary and unpaid.
In 2001, a South African human rights attorney named John Dugard was appointed. He spent decades combating apartheid in his own nation. He was the only special rapporteur permitted entry to the OPTs, and even during the Second Intifada, he was free to move about without restriction.
Dugard was allowed to interact with local groups and individuals, including the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who at the time was essentially placed under house arrest.
Dugard came to the conclusion that the situation there was actually far worse than in his native South Africa; there were significantly more civilian deaths, more homes demolished, and greater restrictions on travel, leaving Palestinians dependent on the international community, as the occupying power totally abrogated its responsibilities under international law.
Dugard’s reports were so devastatingly precise and clear that access was refused to successive special rapporteurs. Falk, who would succeed him, was actually deported after being arrested upon arrival.
A Canadian attorney named Lynk followed him in 2016 but made no attempt to enter. Yet, all three were able to consult a wealth of information gathered by local legal and human rights organizations, including Palestinian, Israeli, and international ones, as well as speak with Palestinians in nearby nations.
Unsurprisingly enough, all three lawyers have been exposed to severe vilification for their reports – especially Richard Falk, possibly the most publicly outspoken of the rapporteurs. He expresses surprise at being chosen for the position by the UN Human Rights Council; he had hoped a more “sympathetic” candidate would be chosen.
Israel was not a member of the HRC at the time, and curiously, the US withdrew in protest over supposed anti-Israel bias, even though it would have undoubtedly blocked his appointment. When Falk’s unexpected appointment was announced, it was met with derision from the US ambassador to the UN, a flurry of hate mail and death threats, as well as the standard “self-hating Jew” and “antisemite” designations.
Israel’s Geneva-based NGO, UN Watch, then launched a series of vicious attacks. Following the publication of the book, Falk discussed the widespread “weaponization” of antisemitism charges in a webinar. This tactic is used to “change the subject” by discrediting detractors and putting an end to any meaningful debate.
Falk was able to arrange admission to Gaza via Egypt in 2012, just after the Israeli assault, Operation Pillar of Defence, and witness the destruction for himself, while being prohibited from entering Israel or the West Bank. Regrettably, further access to Gaza was blocked by Sisi’s takeover in Egypt in 2013.
The reports, which make up the bulk of the book, give the reader the opportunity to follow Palestine’s native population’s agonizing division, eviction, and control in increasing detail.
International law forbids almost all of Israel’s deportation, settlement, annexation, and finally apartheid actions. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention is crystal explicit on the subject of collective punishment, for instance: “No protected person may be punished for an offence that he or she has not personally committed.”
Yet, Israel has received harsh criticism repeatedly, even from the Security Council, for its actions, such as destroying or enclosing thousands of Palestinian houses. Even though the families or owners have not been accused of any crimes, much less found guilty of them, the Israelis frequently assert that the location is the residence of an alleged criminal. Sometimes the family is only a tenant and does not even own the home.
The most heinous forms of collective punishment have been reserved for the people of Gaza, for more than 16 years. The isolation by land, sea, and air alone amounts to a type of collective punishment for the entire populace. It is quite distressing to read about their deteriorating position, which includes the recurrent assaults, loss of infrastructure and facilities, and decline in physical and mental health.
Of course, the A-word is utterly abhorrent to uncritical defenders of Israel. Yet, Dugard has already discussed the apartheid-style control system employed by Israel to uphold its occupation as early as 2007. Several eminent human rights organizations recently outlined the term’s relevance to Israel in great detail.
This particular crime, such a repugnant relic of the 20th century, according to the reporteurs, “may well form the Achilles heel of Israel’s occupation and annexation ambitions”.
The three lawyers’ individual paths also become clear throughout the course of the novel. They believed that their unquestionable testimony would energize the international community early in their terms of office. Lynk explains how, maybe naively, he believed that the UN would take action once he exposed the war crime represented by settlement construction. He was quickly proven wrong.
The so-called separation wall (“an act of annexation”) was being constructed, primarily on Palestinian territory, when Dugard assumed his position. When Israel was able to disregard the judgment of the International Court of Justice and proceed with the wall’s construction with complete impunity, he became aware of the inadequacies of the UN system.
If the probe is permitted to continue, Falk is certain that Palestine will be able to make a compelling case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. But the moral force of international law has repeatedly given way to geopolitical forces.
Of course, there have been honorable exceptions. In the UN General Assembly and elsewhere, Norway and Ireland in particular have consistently taken positions in support while frequently referencing the reporteurs’ findings.
Their anger with the UN was evident during the recent open webinar where the colleagues gathered to discuss their job. The organization is almost “built to be ineffective,” they both agreed.
The hundreds of resolutions in support of Palestinian rights voted by the General Assembly and the HRC have been blocked by the Security Council’s five permanent members’ veto power and America’s strategic interest in defending Israel. Lynk made notice of “the astonishing unwillingness of the international community to execute any of its own laws and decisions” in his final address to the UN.
The reporteurs do, however, describe the overall impact of their work in the last chapter. Several NGOs and members of civil society, including churches, universities, and labor unions, have shown support for them, invited them to speak, and they have even garnered media attention.
They have raised a lot more public awareness and sparked activism all over the world by speaking to civil society instead of governments. Despite all efforts to prohibit it, the BDS movement is thriving.
Appointed only last year to the role, Albanese highlights in her foreword the fundamental necessity of the mandate and confirms her determination to continuing in the spirit of her predecessors, “to give justice a chance”.
Their work gives us hope that, like with South Africa, an informed public may finally exert pressure on governments, especially once the blatantly fascist nature of Israel’s governance can no longer be disregarded.