Introduction

Since its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel has refused to recognise both that these areas are Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and the IVth Geneva Convention of 1949, relative to the protection of civilian persons in times of war (the Convention). On the contrary, the Israeli occupying power has systematically violated the Provisions of the Convention, whilst the entire international community, whether governments or agencies, has recognised the de jure applicability of the Convention, as well as demanding that the Israeli government applies the Convention de jure in these territories and provides protection for Palestinian civilians.

On the 25th April, 1997, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution (A/RES/ES-10/2) as a consequence of the Israeli government’s decision to build a new settlement in Jebel Abu Ghoneim (Har Homa) in Jerusalem. This has been followed by resolutions ES10/3 and ES10/4 and ES10/5 that were adopted by the General Assembly on the 20th March 1998. As a result of the deterioration in human rights in the OPT and the Israeli occupying force’s systematic violation of the Provisions of the Convention, the UN Resolutions reaffirm the de jure applicability to the OPT. Therefore, Israel as a belligerent occupying force is obliged to apply these Provisions. Since Israel as a belligerent occupying force has failed to fulfil its obligations, the General Assembly has asked the High Contracting Parties of the Convention to fulfill their obligations under Article 1 of the Convention, in which the High Contracting Parties have undertaken to ensure respect of the Convention in all circumstances.

The new development of the UN General Assembly’s invitation to convene a conference of the High Contracting Parties, in order to investigate measures to apply the Convention to the OPT, is of utmost importance. The General Assembly has asked the Swiss government (as a Depositary of the Convention) to take the necessary steps to convene such a conference, including the possibility of convening a Meeting of Experts to prepare for the Conference of the High Contracting Parties. The General Assembly has also recommended that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) should be invited to the Conference and participate in the preparatory measures.

In its first practical step, the Swiss government invited the PLO and the government of Israel to a quadrilateral meeting that would also be attended by the Swiss government and the ICRC. The aim of this meeting is to investigate the measures of applying the Convention in general, and not specifically the OPT. As a result of the implied dangers of this invitation, since it undermines the letter and spirit of the relevant UN resolutions, PCHR conducted a series of meetings and activities, that were crowned by the convening of a Meeting of Experts at its Centre in Gaza City (between the 8th and 9th August 1998). This meeting was attended by a number of academics and experts, who provided legal advice on a number of basic issues relevant to the UN invitation for convening a Conference of the High Contracting Parties. Measures taken so far by the Swiss government, especially the convening of the quadrilateral meeting, were also focussed on.

The quadrilateral meeting organised by the Swiss government took place in Geneva between the 9th and 11th June 1998. PCHR expressed its deep concern about this meeting and issued a factual and analytical report clarifying the serious potential dangers of such a meeting. The quadrilateral meeting overstepped the limits of the Swiss government’s authorisation, according to the UN resolutions. The UN Resolutions give authority to the Swiss government for the necessary preparatory measures to convene the conference of the High Contracting Parties. The Swiss government does not have the right to make whatever arrangements it chooses. In addition, the meeting’s implications on the rules of International Law must be considered. The meeting itself is a Swiss attempt to make the overall issue an Israeli-Palestinian matter, which is in contradiction with the Convention itself and the UN resolutions that stress the responsibility of the High Contracting Parties, regarding the applicability of the Convention and the respect of its provisions by the Israeli belligerent occupation.

At a later point, the Swiss government proposed what it calls “a proposal for mechanism to apply the convention in the OPT”. This proposal can be defined as having nothing to do with the de jure application of the Convention. On the contrary, if it is to be adopted, it will preserve the existing illegal status quo in OPT. The Swiss government has been authorised to prepare for the conference merely because it is the Depository of the Convention. Therefore, the Swiss government has no right to propose suggestions which are the core responsibility of the High Contracting Parties on the agreement or to direct the course of the conference without consultation with any of those parties.

In a new development, the Swiss government invited both the PLO and the Israeli government to participate in an expert meeting between 27th and 29th October 1998. This meeting took place in Geneva and was attended by representatives of the High Contracting Parties as well as representatives from the PLO and the Israeli government. This meeting was allocated to addressing the general problems related to the application of the Convention in general and in the OPT in particular, as well as to promote dialogue between the participants. It is not part of the mandate of the meeting to investigate the application of the Convention in a specific case, namely the case of the OPT. The deletion of the OPT from the agenda of the meeting should be seen as an intentional aim to sidestep the UN resolutions and to obstruct the convening of a real conference of the High Contracting Parties.

Prior to the expert meeting, PCHR issued (on the 18th Oct 1998) another report that addressed the meeting with a factual and analytical approach. This report also addressed PCHR’s stand on the potential dangers of the meeting, especially as the invitation stated that the meeting would not focus on the OPT. PCHR has sent letters and its report to Mr Koffi Anan, the UN Secretary General and Mrs Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the same time, PCHR has been urging them to make every possible effort to ensure the honest application of the letter and spirit of the UN resolutions.

It is worth mentioning that the High Commissioner was invited as an observer to the Meeting of Experts organised by the Swiss government. Mrs Robinson’s representative read her statement, which was to a great extent in line with PCHR’s report. Her statement assured the necessity to respect the 4th Geneva Convention, the honest enforcement of the UN Resolutions, the need for an immediate effort to put an end to the violation of the Provisions of the Convention and the need to activate the mechanisms of the 4th Geneva Convention as well as those of the UN. The statement of the High Commissioner affirms what PCHR has been calling for, which is to respect the rules of International Law and Standards, not to be politicized and to put an immediate end to the violations.

The Swiss delegation reacted sharply to the statement of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, because her statement referred clearly to the specific case of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the need to apply the Convention de jure to these territories. This position was reflected in a letter by the Chair of the Meeting of Experts to Mrs. Robinson. The position provides significant evidence of the Swiss intention not to abide by the spirit and letter of the UN resolutions. Mrs. Robinson in her reply, however, reaffirmed what was stated in her speech. She urged harmony with the letter of the UN resolutions regarding the goals and purpose of the Meeting of Experts to address the Occupied Palestinian Territories as the substance of the overall meeting. All of this reaffirms the of what has been done by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in focusing on the dangerous implications of the Swiss measures and arrangements. These Swiss measures contradict the UN resolutions and deviate from the mandate and purpose of the meeting as defined by the UN resolutions.

The convening of a Conference of the High Contracting Parties was and still is a main Palestinian demand, which is not an end in itself but a very important mechanism allowed to open the file of the Israeli occupation to the OPT and the systematic violations of human rights and the Provisions of the 4th Geneva Convention. Additionally, this mechanism would put the High Contracting Parties face to face with their legal obligations in accordance with the Convention.

PCHR would like to highlight that since the signing of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the High Contracting Parties have not yet been invited to convene a conference where the Provisions of the Conventions have been applied in a specific case. In spite of the fact that there was no analogous precedent, this should be in the framework of the legal obligations set out by the Convention and therefore all the steps taken should be in harmony with that. Our reference at PCHR is the international standards and legal obligations imposed on states. What is a matter of interest for us is the legal application of the Convention, regardless of the political or diplomatic factors. The law and its obligations should be preserved and any arrangements that do not reach these standards should not be accepted. In this regard, states are free concerning how they fulfill their legal obligations, on the condition that whatever steps and measures taken will not undermine these obligations. The dangers of the developments regarding a conference of the High Contracting Parties based on the Swiss formula would be an international precedent that would definitely have a direct impact on similar cases in the future. Here lies the potential danger that should be taken seriously and not tolerated.

PCHR has conducted a series of meetings and issued a number of press releases in order to inform the public and clarify the potential danger of the Swiss action . We also present the conclusions and recommendations of the Meeting of Experts that was organised by PCHR between the 8th and 9th August 1998 . The Centre’s activities in following the relevant developments in the application of the IVth Geneva Convention is an essential part of its work and its interest in preserving the rules of International Law for a just settlement of the Palestinian question and to promote the human rights situation in the OPT. By publishing the available documents regarding the development of the enforcement of the relevant UN resolutions, PCHR is aiming to publicize this information widely - as a basic right of the public to receive information. Moreover, publishing information about these developments will give the issue the serious attention it requires.

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