The Universality of Human Rights at Risk

The Credibility of International Protection Mechanisms in Danger*







* Memorandum issued by the CIHRS on April 9th, 2001, after consultation with and endorsement by 32 Arab human rights NGOs from 12 Middle Eastern states.




The Universality of Human Rights at Risk

The Credibility of International Protection Mechanisms in Danger


The principal challenge to the notion of the universality of human rights in the last decade was cultural relativism. Yet, different governmental and non-governmental actors have contributed largely to the establishment of firmer foundations for a wider international consensus on human rights principles. However, there are serious obstacles threatening to undermine such universality: the politicisation of human rights and double standards. They are most evident in excluding a certain state from being held accountable for its gross human rights violations and endowing it with impunity – Israel.

 This situation begs the question: are we all in fact guided by the same universal principles and values? Are we all covered by the same human rights protections mechanisms?

Theoretically the answer may be a yes, but on the ground it is impossible to give the same answer. This is what jeopardises the efficiency of the human rights mechanisms most.

 The international community needed only six months to force Iraq out of Kuwait, and some other months to intervene in Kosovo, while it lacks the minimum political will required to enforce resolutions some of which have been adopted more than half a century ago: Resolution 194 of 1948 stipulating the return of the Palestinian refugees; Resolution 181 of 1947 on the partition of Palestine; and Resolution 242 of 1967 requiring that Israel withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The last two resolutions have great bearing on enabling the Palestinian people to exercise their right to self-determination.

 It is true that the international community has failed in other more recent and less tragic cases, such as the withdrawal of China from Tibet or Turkey from Cyprus. Yet, certainly these two states have not been accorded special and exceptional protection in the UN Security Council by those states that pose themselves as the leaders of the defence of human rights, let alone being presented as an “oasis of democracy” as is happening with Israel!

 The international community has never tolerated such blackmailing by a state that threatens international peace and security, starts wars, occupies lands, and commits acts of aggression almost daily. This is in addition to the number of collective massacres and acts of ethnic cleansing it perpetrated (as confessed to by its political leaders and evidenced by its academic historians), which led to the displacement of millions of refugees. And yet the international community is not able to subject it to the same standards of accountability applied to the rest of the world.

 The UN General Assembly, Security Council, the UN Commission on Human Rights and other human rights UN bodies have variously adopted several positive resolutions against Israel and in support of the Palestinian people[1]. For half a century, all of them have remained a dead letter[2]. In fact, any draft resolution seeking to oblige Israel to enforce any of these resolutions was met with a veto, at the same time when other countries have been successfully brought to abide by international standards (such as Iraq, former Yugoslavia, Indonesia).

 Israel’s (unaccounted for) record of human rights violations include the following main patterns:

First: Committing crimes against humanity in the form of systematic ethnic cleansing, which includes: collective massacres, terrorising and uprooting the population, and displacing around five millions of them for more than half a century (theirs is the longest standing tragedy among all the refugees in the world), in addition to shelling cities and residential neighbourhoods using artillery, tanks and missiles.

 Second: Establishing a racist regime no less deplorable or savage than the former regime in South Africa, which is based on the notion of the superiority of Jews to the non-Jewish indigenous people (who are also Semitic). This regime rests on a legislative system that institutionalises the racist social structure in the fields of property, economy, employment, housing and education, creating within Israel first and second-class citizenships according to religious/national affiliation. All of this is in contradiction with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to which Israel is a signatory.

 The Israeli position on the return of the Palestinian refugees is a clear example of racism (in addition to being contradictory to UN General Resolution 194 of 1948 on the return of the Palestinian refugees and Articles 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 13 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Israel denies the right of the indigenous population -who still have their property deeds and home keys- to return, while the Law of Return gives the right to residence and nationality automatically to any one claiming they are Jews, notwithstanding where they have been born or have resided. Refusing to return East Jerusalem shows the same religious/race supremacy attitude towards the religious considerations of Muslims and Christians. Discriminatory practices against the Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem constitute an additional facet of racism. Arabs are treated as foreigners; they are denied their citizenship right. Their right to permanent residence is revoked if they leave the city or the country. This constitutes a breach of Articles 2 and 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC) and Articles 13 and 26 of the ICCPR as well as the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

 The racist nature of this regime extends to encompass the Palestinian occupied territories. They are being transformed into “Bantustans” by force, and suffer under dependant economic relations of a racial, colonialistic nature. The racist character of the regime is being imposed at the expense of the indigenous population, as thousands are being brought from the ends of the world to settle there while the Palestinians are being banished and displaced through a series of oppressive and discriminatory measures. Such measures constitute a flagrant violation of the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of which Article 49 prohibits individual or mass forcible transfers and deportations from occupied territories and stipulates that the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. The persistence of such practices is proof of Israel’s insistence on refusing to comply with UN resolutions, especially General Assembly Resolution 2851 of 1971 which demands that Israel rescind and desist from all measures of annexation and settlement, and Security Council Resolution 465 of 1980 which demands that Israel dismantle the (then) existing settlements and cease the establishment, construction and planning of new settlements.

 Third: Denying the Palestinian people their right to self-determination that is guaranteed by Article 1 of both the ICCPR and the ICESCR, as well as by the UN Charter.

 Fourth: Undertaking systematic acts of oppression for about 34 years against the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. These practices aim at forcing the Palestinian people to give up their rights and sovereignty over their lands, resources and holy sites. Their purpose is also to force the Palestinians people to resign themselves to a status of racial inferiority by which their natural wealth, water, cheap labour are utilized for the welfare of Israel. To such end, Israel uses most brutal methods of oppression that are detailed in the yearly reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on her visit to the region (E/CN.4/2001/114), and the report by the UN Fact-Finding Commission in the Palestinian Occupied Territories (E/CN.4/2001/121).[3] It is worth noting that the UN Security Council has on several occasions affirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Palestinian occupied territories including Jerusalem and has demanded that Israel comply with its provisions. This showed most evidently in Security Council Resolutions 605 of 1987, 607 of 1988, and 726 of 1992.

 The last six months witnessed great intensification of such practices. Indeed, they have reached an unprecedented level with the employment of artillery, missiles, tanks and gunships in shelling cities and residential areas. These violations could be classified as follows:


1)      Excessive use of force, in contradiction to the principles of international law and the provisions of Articles 27 and 32 of the Fourth Geneva Convention providing for the protection of civilian persons against all acts of violence or threats thereof and prohibiting taking any measure of such a character as to cause the physical suffering or extermination of protected persons. Such use of force also constitutes a flagrant violation of the right to life as enshrined in Article 6 of the ICCPR and Article 6 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It has so far led to the death of 400 Palestinians, 30% of them children, and the injury of around 12 thousand. Assaulting medical teams and excessive restrictions to the right to movement (in contradiction to Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) have raised the number of victims and cripples.

2)      Physical liquidation and extra-judicial killings of Palestinians (as confessed by Israeli political and military officials) at the hands of the occupation forces in the occupied territories.

3)      Violation of the provisions of Articles 33, 50, 52, 53, 55, 59, and 60 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Articles 52 and 54 of Protocol (1) additional to the Geneva Conventions, and Articles 6, 11, 12 and 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This is through the implementation of a package of collective punishment measures against civilians which include: bombarding civilian buildings, bulldozing houses, destroying agricultural lands, destroying crops and uprooting trees. This is in addition to waging an all-out war of starvation by the continuous closure of the occupied territories and border crossing points, which prevented no less than 120 thousand workers from going to their work and exacerbated the existing problem of unemployment (which is 38% among the working force in general, reaching 85% in rural areas). This has put the Palestinian economy on the verge of collapse according to reports by the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and the United Nations representative to the Palestinian Authority. The situation is made worse by Israel’s blocking of humanitarian relief and essential foods and medicine, which threatens widespread famine.

4)      Torture and maltreatment of Palestinian prisoners, as detailed by the United Nations Committee against Torture. These practices had been condoned by the Israeli Supreme Court, and the government is trying to legalize it by submitting a bill to this effect to the Knesset. This is a grave violation of Articles 27, 32 and 37 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Articles 7 and 10 of the ICCPR, and the guarantees provided by the Convention against Torture. Moreover, in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits transferring detained persons, even if convicted, from the occupied territories, more than 2000 Palestinian prisoners have been transferred from their places of detention in the occupied territories to other prisons inside Israel.

5)      Undertaking a number of administrative and legislative measures, including expropriation of lands and property, that are to change the legal status of Jerusalem, in breach of Security Council Resolutions 252 of 1968 and 267 of 1969 General Assembly Resolution 298 of 1971, as well as Security Council Resolution 476 of 1980 which stated that the measures taken by Israel to change the status of Jerusalem were null and void and called upon Israel to rescind them in conformity with its Resolution 271 of 1969.

6)      Repeated attacks on places of worship and denying Palestinians access to some holy sites and preventing them from practicing worship rituals, especially in Jerusalem, in contradiction to the provisions of Article 18 of the ICCPR. Moreover, the Security Council has condemned such practices on several occasions, particularly its Resolution 271 of 1969.

7)      Repeated attacks on Palestinian media institutions and journalists. This included firing at and battering with sticks journalists during their coverage of events, which led to injuring 40 Palestinian and 6 foreign journalists and reporters. This is a violation of the freedom of expression and the right to the circulation of information as guaranteed by Article 19 of the ICCPR, as well as Article 79 of Protocol (1) additional to the Geneva Conventions which makes obligatory ensuring the protection of journalists while on duty.


Given such brutal smothering of the spirit of the Palestinian people in the last few months, some of the Holocaust phraseology (such as concentration camps) has been increasingly reiterated in the writings of liberal Israeli writers who are looking with awe at the low depths to which their state is descending. This is especially so since some political circles (including two Israeli cabinet ministers) has put forwards new plans for transferring and evacuating the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Arabs in Israel. This may foreshadow a new wave of ethnic cleansing.

 It has happened before that the conscience of the international community awakens late from its slumber. It happened with the crimes against humanity that were committed during World War II and on several other occasions. And here we witness it doing the same again, with its silence encouraging the continuation of the Israeli organised oppression of the Palestinians for over half a century. It is a shocking irony to human conscience that the atrocities of the World War II were a reason for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the four conventions of the international humanitarian law, and yet the children and relatives of some of the victims of those atrocities refuse to abide by the principles enshrined in these instruments and do not accept that their state may be held accountable according to them.

 This would have never been possible if it were not for the special protection accorded to Israel by the United States, especially in the Security Council, in addition to a European attitude that wavers between verbal condemnation and connivance. This ensures that dozens of resolutions remain empty rhetoric, and secures Israel’s impunity, while the Palestinian people continue bleeding.

 In this context it could be understood why people in the Arab World ridicule the repeated talk of human rights universality and international protection of human rights, or consider it an additional aspect of a wide-ranging international conspiracy against the peoples of the region. It also becomes comprehensible how some of the governments in the region are not brought to account by their peoples, despite the fact that their human right records are among the worst in the world.



Accordingly, We affirm the following general recommendations:

 First: Calling upon the UN Security Council to uphold all its responsibilities in facing the war crimes perpetrated by Israel and the great damages that have afflicted the civilian persons, in the framework of the provisions of Chapters 6 and 7 of the United Nations Charter. This includes:


1-     Forming an international force for the protection of the Palestinian people and their property that is to stand between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation forces until their withdrawal and until the Palestinian people are enabled to practice their right to self-determination.

2-     Providing the Palestinian refugees with the necessary protection in pursuance of Article 1-D of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, especially since they are the only group of refugees that are not covered by international protection mechanisms or the supervision of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees as was noted by the UN fact-finding mission in its report (E/CN.4/2001/121).

3-     Forming an international Criminal Tribunal for prosecuting Israeli war criminals similar to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Until then, the High Contracting Parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention should fulfil their legal obligation under Article 146 to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, grave breaches of the Convention.

4-      Imposing the necessary political and economic sanctions on Israel so as to oblige it to respect and implement the relevant international legal resolutions and to liquidate the institutional bases of its racist regime, in the same manner as was adopted regarding the former racist regime in South Africa.


Second: Calling upon the High Contracting Parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention (in accordance with Article 1 common to the four Geneva conventions in which they undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the conventions) to resume their meeting, which adjourned without a decision in July 1999, to consider taking appropriate measures to ensure respect for and enforcement of the provisions of the Convention in the Palestinian occupied territories.

 Third: Calling upon the United Nations General Assembly to uphold its legal responsibilities towards the Palestinian people in accordance with its Resolution 377 of 1950 known as “Uniting for Peace,” which allows it to intervene in situations that threaten international peace and security if it feels a clear omission and failure on the part of the Security Council to fulfil its legal obligations. This is further supported by the fact that it was the General Assembly that decided the partition of Palestine and stipulated in its Resolution 273 of 1949, accepting the membership of Israel, its commitment to the implementation of General Assembly Resolutions 181 and 194.

Fourth: Calling upon all the relevant international institutions to consider, in their respective fields, immediate and effective measures put an end to the violence, the gross human rights violations, the siege and the war of starvation waged by Israel, which warn of a new tragic chapter in the life of the Palestinian people and another massive wave of displacement that threatens peace and security in the region as a whole.

 Fifth: Calling upon the parties to the peace process in the region, the US and the European Union in particular, to place human rights considerations at the centre of any new peace negotiations. The experience of the last decades has proven that is the only guarantee for reaching a genuine and lasting peace.


*          *            *            *


The continued exemption of Israel from being held accountable is an example other countries are trying to repeat, which puts the whole international system before serious dangers. For example, the nuclear non-proliferation regime is under threat because Israel is exempted from responsibility or accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which led other countries to refuse to accede to or abide by the provisions of the Treaty.

 The continued exemption of Israel from being held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinian people, and from abiding to the resolutions of the international community’s institutions has led to sacrificing not only human rights and the international humanitarian law, but also peace and security in the region, and now it is threatening the collapse of the whole international human rights protection system and the absolute failure of the principle of human rights universality.

 The international community has never been in such need to rehabilitate human rights principles, their universality and the common human responsibility for their enforcement and protection.

 These recommendations are, in essence, a message to affirm that the protection mechanisms have not been put in place to target certain states and exempt others and that before these mechanisms all states are equal. They are also a message that aims at recovering respect for principles and the efficiency of the mechanisms.



List of Signatories



1-     Al- Mezan Center for Human Rights – Palestine

2-     Committee for the Defense of Human Rights - Syria     

3-     Al Haq - Palestine

4-     ITTIJAH-Union of Arab Community based Association-Israel

5-     Organization Marocaine Des Droits Humains- Morocco

6-     Arab Association for Human Rights- Israel

7-     Jerusalem Legal Aid & Human Rights Center- Palestine

8-     Forum Verite et justice- Morocco

9-     Badil-Resource Center for Plaestinian Residency and Refugees Rights- Palestine

10- Forum for Civil Society- Yemen

11- Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center- Jordan

12-  Women’s Forum for Research and Training- Yemen

13-  The Libyan League for Human Rights- Libya

14-  Palestinian Human Rights Organization (Rights)- Lebanon

15-  Sudan Human Rights Organization- Sudan

16-  Human Rights Center for Assistance of Prisoners- Egypt

17-  New Women Research Center- Egypt

18-  Al- Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation and Management for Victims of Violence- Egypt

19- LAW The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment- Palestine

20-  Committee for the Respect of Freedom and Human Rights – Tunisia

21- Egyptian Organization for Human Rights- Egypt

22- Hisham Mubarak Law Center- Egypt

23- Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights- Egypt

24- Women’s Center for Legal aid and Counselling - Palestine

25- Palestinian Center for Human Rights- Palestine

26- Ligue Tunisienne pour La Defense des Droits de l’Homme- Tunisia

27- Adallah- the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights - Israel

28-  Association of Forty- for recognition of Unrecognized Arab Villages- Israel

29- Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Internally Displaced – Israel

30- Bahrain Human Rights Organization - Bahrain

31- Lebanon Association for Human Rights

32-  Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies – Regional Center



[1] For example: the return of the refugees; withdrawal from the occupied territories; the illegality of settlements, the annexation of East Jerusalem and land confiscation; the condemnation of: blowing up homes, collective punishments, attacking holy sites, torture, extra-judicial killings, etc.


[2] For example, the UN General Assembly has reaffirmed its Resolution 194 of 1948 concerning the return of the Palestinian refugees 110 times. Yet, for 53 years not a single step was taken to oblige Israel to enforce it.
[3] The three reports were discussed in the UN Commission on Human Rights session this year.