The UN and the Rights of the Palestinians – A need for more balanced, cohesive communication

14 Jun

Editor’s Note:  This is the 2nd Blog Post from Benji Shulman from South Africa.  Benji is spending the summer with GAPW working on the implications for conflict of climate change and environmental degradation.  As someone also involved in Jewish-Islamic relations in his country, Benji will also reflect from time to time (as he does here) on how the UN navigates the complexities of Middle East politics, culture and human rights. 

This blog reports on the 361st meeting of UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The meeting was attended mostly by Arab states and key members of the Non-Aligned Movement and included a feedback session by committee members and a report back by the office of the Special Rapporteur.

The session focused on reports from various meetings, processes and outcomes of the committee. Updates on the diplomatic front were also given, with a special, positive emphasis placed on the recent Palestinian Unity deal between Hamas and Fatah (See related GA statement — http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs//2014/gapal1300.doc.htm).  Key issues raised over the course of the meeting were the status of the West Bank barrier, prisoners and prisons, conditions in Palestinian areas, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian participation in other UN committees, and upcoming events commemorating the 2014 UN year of solidarity with the Palestinian People.

The mandate and configuration of the committee was generally favorable to the Palestinian perspective with an absence of Israel-supportive voices in the room. Given this, the outcomes of this committee would likely be considered partisan by onlookers, with more focus and encouragement for current unilateral diplomatic and related efforts being undertaken by the Palestinians than on the encouragement of bilateral negotiations and engagements between the opposing parties.

From a peace and security perspective there are several items worth noting. The first is the progressively milder and more measured language being used by Palestinian diplomatic representatives in this committee. This restraint should be more widely encouraged by the committee. In particular the policy community in Palestine and international Palestinian support groups might not share or even know about the official political stances being taken in their name at the UN, something that would also apply to Israel and its support groups.

The diplomatic corps also need to make sure that their affiliated missions worldwide are conscious and more supportive of the more moderate policy positions being articulated in these UN committees. For example the Palestinian embassy in South Africa, under the late Ambassador Ali Haliemah, was careful to avoid endorsing extremist groups that would undermine the Palestinian state position even if those groups claimed to  be acting on behalf of the Palestinian cause. Since his unfortunate death the Palestinian embassy in South Africa has endorsed events and groups which would be considered at odds with the stated policy positions of the Palestinian representatives at the UN committee and even with those positions the embassy has shared with the South African government.

Going forward clear and consistent communication on policy will be required so that potentially positive diplomatic outcomes do not needlessly confront obstacles from local actors or implicate embassy staff in acts of extremism. This will be especially important in light of the recently announced unity government of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which as noted was much lauded at the UN meeting. The Palestinian representative dealt only briefly with the issue of conflicting viewpoints between these two parties. The consistent emphasis at the meeting on the goal of a peaceful two- state solution seems considerably at odds with Hamas’s continued aggressive non-recognition of Israel. It remains to be seen which of the two perspectives — or which combination of the two — will become mainstream Palestinian policy.

The other issue that piqued significant interest is the status of Jerusalem on which the committee reported extensively including aspects such as construction, evictions, legal perspectives and religious issues. One point of contention during discussion was the characterization by some of Jerusalem as an “international security issue.” Whilst the area continues to be a hot spot for tensions, it has generally been calmer than other locales including much of the West Bank or indeed many other parts of the Middle East. It is important for discussion to reflect this relative calm given the generally high potential for unrest in the city because of it elevated levels of religious fervor. It has however been demonstrated that these risks have the potential to be mitigated as the recent visit of Pope Francis to the city and the region suggests.

Treating the current status of Jerusalem as a ‘peace and security threat’ seems excessive. One of the risks associated with the unilateral (and sometime inflammatory) actions currently being undertaken by both the Palestinians and Israelis is the continuing threats of violence resulting in part from a lack of negotiations. Currently however violence is not the norm in Jerusalem and it is important to be careful not to create the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The potential for dangerous religious tension in the city can in fact be diminished by the international community, by Israel and by the Palestinians, through encouraging inter-faith engagement, clamping down on religious incitement, guaranteeing unimpeded access to all holy sites, and through related confidence-building measures.

Benji Shulman, GAPW

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